Allen Institute researchers show how cells divide in first-of-its-kind 3D model

A cell in the anaphase stage of mitosis. (Allen Institute for Cell Science Rendering)

One of the most basic biological dramas is now available in interactive 3D.

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Cell Science today unveiled a project that offers a near-complete view of how cells divide. Their 3D experience is available online at an interactive website that takes you through their process and lets you play with the cell directly.

The project was inspired by a glaring gap in our understanding of mitosis, the process of cell division. “One of the most fundamental things that a cell has to do is divide,” said Susanne Rafelski, director of assay development at the Allen Institute. The researchers set out to “understand how a cell becomes two” once and for all.

In a typical research setting, scientists focus on one small portion of biology at a time. But the Allen Institute team wanted to see how the system works together during this fundamental process.

“We want to establish a baseline understanding of how normal, happy, healthy cells exist,” said Graham Johnson, a director of the animated cell team at the Allen Institute. The team decided to study stem cells since they can ultimately become any other kind of cell.

A stem cell in the metaphase stage. (Allen Institute for Cell Science Animation)

To create the model, the team tagged 15 different structures within cells with fluorescent proteins, which allowed the researchers to see how those structures behaved. They then took microscopic images and combined those cellular snapshots to track the changes over time.

Using an algorithm, they brought all 15 structures together — for the first time allowing the scientists to see how a cell’s various components interact during division. The holistic view allowed researchers to make a range of observations about how and when structures change or don’t change throughout the process.

One of their findings was a “trigger point” moment during division, in which multiple structures underwent significant changes at the same time.

The nifty visualization, which was dubbed the “integrated mitotic stem cell,” is just the surface of what the Allen Institute team has collected. The tool was created from a compilation of 40,000 images taken of 75 different cells at different stages of mitosis.

“For those that want to dig deeper, all the data is available,” Rafelski said.

One application of that data is for cancer research as a model for how cells divide under normal conditions.

“One of the key hallmarks of cancer cells is that they don’t behave normally in their division,” said Rafelski. “They by definition can divide when other cells can’t.”

The differences between healthy and cancerous cell division might provide clues as to what goes wrong.

“We have a long-term, ambitious goal of understanding how cells work,” said Johnson. “This is sort of our first step after three years of data collection.”

In the next phase of their work, the researchers will be looking closely at heart cells.

The Allen Institute, based in Seattle, was founded in 2014 by the late Paul Allen and is modeled after the Allen Institute for Brain Science, another research group in Seattle created and funded by Allen.

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