Since I posted Jeff Lichtman’s Brainbows, with all those wonderful images of the fluorescent brain, I’ve gotten questions from people about two basic things: first, how do they get those colors? and second, how do they get those images?
For the colors, genetic recombination techniques are used to insert pigment-expressing genes into the genomes of developing mice. The cool part? Those extra genes come from coral and jellyfish. The red color comes from coral, while the blue and cyan come from modifying a fluorescent green pigment in jellyfish.
For the images, the fluorescent hues only appear under fluorescent light. The Lichtman group has used two techniques, both using confocal microscopy (focused image taking, rather than a normal broad view from a typical microscope). First, brain slices are taken from mice and then examined in the lab. Second, for live shots, the Lichtman group works on the “neuromuscular junctions in a very accessible neck muscle in mice,” which permits taking a series of images over several days.
In the older post I blogged on how Lichtman’s approach to his research is reminiscent of what we try to do here—a naturalist concerned with the processes, mechanisms and connections of life and an understanding of the power of observation. But here I want to point out why these techniques are powerful. First, they permit an understanding of neuronal arrangements and connections through the greater discrimination provided by the many different colors. The image below from the original Nature article shows the differences between neuronal patterns in different parts of the brain.
Second, using computers to create 3-D videos from 2-D images, this research gives us maps that permits us stereoscopic humans to actually see fields of neurons as they are structured in the brain. This too represents a major advance over older images. So enjoy the video!
Finally, for your viewing pleasure, a composite image of brainbow pictures.