Category: Cells

Through the Looking Glass: Microscopic Structures in Many Sizes

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We seldom see microscopic objects next to one another, so it can be difficult to picture how they compare. For instance, it might surprise you that a thousand cold-virus particles could line up across one human skin cell! The largest objects that scientists view through microscopes are about a millimeter (roughly the size of a poppyseed), and they’re about 10 million times larger than the smallest molecules scientists can view: atoms.

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Cool Images: Bewitching Bacteria

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Some bacteria benefit us as part of our microbiome—the vast collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—while others can make us sick. Whether helpful or dangerous, bacteria can appear colorful and striking under a microscope. These photos provide just a small peek into the incredible diversity of these microbes.

A green pattern resembling a flower on a red background. Credit: Liyang Xiong and Lev Tsimring, BioCircuits Institute, UCSD.

This floral pattern emerged when a researcher grew two strains of bacteria—Acinetobacter baylyi (red) and Escherichia coli (green)—together for 2 days in a petri dish. A. baylyi are found in soil and typically don’t pose a threat to humans, although some strains can cause infections. E. coli normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains are harmless, but some can cause food poisoning or other illnesses.

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Quiz: How Does Your Knowledge of Life’s Building Blocks Stack Up?

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Cells are the smallest units of life, providing structure and function for all living things, from microorganisms—like bacteria, algae, and yeast—to humans. They come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and they’re complex machines with many smaller components that work together.

Some NIGMS-funded researchers use imaging techniques to peer inside cells, examine their structures, and study how they divide, grow, communicate, and carry out basic functions. Others use biochemical and genetic tests to study how cells interact with their environments, including those that may be toxic. Understanding cells’ biological processes helps to keep us healthy and identify new methods for treating disease.

Take our quiz to test how well you know cells. Afterward, check out our Studying Cells fact sheet and other blog posts on cell biology.

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Explore Our STEM Education Resources for the New School Year

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If you’re looking for ways to engage students in science this school year, NIGMS offers a range of free resources that can help. All of our STEM materials are online and print-friendly, making them easy to use for remote teaching.

Pathways Link to external web site, developed in collaboration with Scholastic, is aligned with STEM and ELA education standards for grades 6 through 12. Materials include:

  • Student magazines with corresponding teaching guides
  • Related lessons with interactives
  • Videos
  • Vocabulary lists
Cover of Pathways student magazine showing a microscopy image of a fruit fly’s head with bright blue eyes and the featured questions: What is this? And what does it have to do with how you sleep? Cover of Pathways student magazine, third issue.

Available lessons examine basic science careers, regeneration, and circadian rhythms.

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Cool Images: Animal Development in Progress

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Wildlife photos can be truly stunning, and cute cat pictures are a cornerstone of the internet. But zooming in on the early lives of fish, insects, and worms can have equally wonderful results. Using powerful microscopes, researchers are revealing the complexity and beauty of animal development.

A spiral of orange and red cells. Credit: James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA.

This image captures the spiral-shaped ovary of an anglerfish in cross section. Once matured, these eggs will be released in a gelatinous, floating mass. For some species of anglerfish, this egg mass can be up to 3 feet long and include nearly 200,000 eggs.

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The Maternal Magic of Mitochondria

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An oblong purple shape with ripples throughout against a light blue background. Mitochondria (purple) in a rodent heart muscle cell. Credit: Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research.

Mitochondria (mitochondrion in singular) are indispensable. Every cell of our bodies, apart from mature red blood cells, contains the capsule-shaped organelles that generate more than 90 percent of our energy, which is why they’re often called “the powerhouse of the cell.” They produce this energy by forming adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our cells’ most common energy source. But mitochondria also support cells in other ways. For example, they help cells maintain the correct concentration of calcium ions, which are involved in blood clotting and muscle contraction. Mitochondria are also the only structure in our cells with their own unique DNA, which with rare exceptions, is inherited only from mothers. That’s why, in honor of Mother’s Day, we’re exploring this special cellular connection to moms.

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Twisting and Turning: Unraveling What Causes Asymmetry

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Note to our Biomedical Beat readers: Echoing the sentiments NIH Director Francis Collins made on his blog, NIGMS is making every effort during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep supporting the best and most powerful science. In that spirit, we’ll continue to bring you stories across a wide range of NIGMS topics. We hope these posts offer a respite from the coronavirus news when needed.

Asymmetry in our bodies plays an important role in how they work, affecting everything from function of internal systems to the placement and shape of organs. Take a look at your hands. They are mirror images of each other, but they’re not identical. No matter how you rotate them or flip them around, they will never be the same. This is an example of chirality, which is a particular type of asymmetry. Something is chiral if it can’t overlap on its mirror image.

An image of a pair of hands, palms facing up. An arrow points to another image of the left hand on top of the right, both palms still facing up, illustrating that they can’t be superimposed. Our hands are chiral: They’re mirror images but aren’t identical.

Scientists are exploring the role of chirality and other types of asymmetry in early embryonic development. Understanding this relationship during normal development is important for figuring out how it sometimes goes wrong, leading to birth defects and other medical problems.

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Explore Our Virtual Learning STEM Resources

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If you’re looking for engaging ways to teach science from home, NIGMS offers a range of resources that can help.

Cover of the graphic novel Occupied by Microbes!, showing four teens racing downhill on skateboards. A SEPA-funded resource about microbes. Credit: University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Our Science Education and Partnership Award (SEPA) webpage features free, easy-to-access STEM and informal science education projects for pre-K through grade 12. Aligned with state and national standards for STEM teaching and learning, the program has tools such as:

  • Apps
  • Interactives
  • Online books
  • Curricula and lesson plans
  • Short movies

Students can learn about sleep, cells, growth, microbes, a healthy lifestyle, genetics, and many other subjects.

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The Meat of the Matter: Learning How Gut Microbiota Might Reduce Harm from Red Meat

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Drawing of intestines with a magnifying glass showing bacteria within the intestine.Microbiota in the intestines. Credit: iStock.

Research on how diet impacts the gut microbiota has rapidly expanded in the last several years. Studies show that diets rich in red meat are linked to diseases such as colon cancer and heart disease. In both mice and humans, researchers have recently discovered differences in the gut microbiota of those who eat diets rich in red meat compared with those who don’t. This is likely because of a sugar molecule in the red meat, called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), that our bodies can’t break down. Researchers believe the human immune system sees Neu5Gc as foreign. This triggers the immune system, causing inflammation in the body, and possibly leads to disease over time.

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Cool Images: A Colorful—and Halloween-Inspired—Collection

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Transformations aren’t just for people or pets around Halloween. Scientific images also can look different than you might expect, depending on how they’re photographed. Check out these tricky-looking images and learn more about the science behind them.

A human fibroblast cell dividing. A tan-colored area surrounds the cell that contains two magenta-colored centers. Green dots line the area where the cell is dividing. Credit: Nilay Taneja, Vanderbilt University, and Dylan T. Burnette, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Do you have a hunch about what this image is? Perhaps something to do with dry leaves? It’s a human fibroblast cell undergoing cell division, or cytokinesis, into two daughter cells. Cytokinesis is essential for the growth and development of new cells. And fibroblasts play a big role in wound healing by helping with contraction and closure.

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