The Final Frontier

 Agila Somasundaram photoI remember reading the seminal papers on the ultrastructure of the synapse by Heuser and Reese, published in the 1970s. The electron micrographs of the frog neuromuscular junctions showed fused/collapsed vesicles, and rows of calcium channels at the synapse. The study described several interesting findings, and raised several more important questions. I’m constantly amazed at how, decades later, we are still trying to figure out the answers to many of them, only with more advanced and mind-blowing technology!

My very first scientific session at this meeting – the Saturday subgroup on Exocytosis and Endocytosis – was testimony to how advancing technology gets us closer to some answers, while also encouraging us to probe further. I wanted to highlight one particular talk from the session – by Dr. Justin Taraska, an investigator at the NIH (also, my PI).

Dr. Taraska’s talk was on imaging the nanometer-scale structure of clathrin-mediated endocytosis using correlative 3D and super-resolution light microscopy. He emphasized the importance of understanding structure in cell-biology – how determining the structure of a protein or an organelle within the cell can provide a fresh perspective on knowledge gained from decades of research using biochemical, molecular biology, genetics and other tools. With stunningly beautiful 3-D PALM images overlaid on electron micrographs, the talk was a tribute to the inherent beauty that lies in the architecture of a cell!

It made me wonder what a visual feast it would be to take a 3-D tour through a cell, where all the molecules are colored and distinctly visible, and we could walk around the nucleus, dive into the mitochondria, climb up the clathrin lattice, and take a ride on dynein along the microtubules. But really, we should be able to have all the data necessary to generate a complete, high-resolution, visual representation of the 3-D structure of not just a stationary but also dynamic cell someday, right? Which brings me to the question – when/where does science stop? Is there a final frontier to science? I’m guessing not.

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