EVER since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the vast world within our bodies and have long dreamed about what it would be like to shrink myself down and explore the inside of a human cell at the microscopic level. It turns out I’m not alone: biologists are trying to do exactly that – and you and I can help them.
Just as the human body contains organs that perform different functions, our cells have various structures and pieces of molecular machinery called organelles. Examples of organelles are the nucleus, where DNA is stored, and the mitochondria, which are sites of energy production.
Advances in microscope technology allow researchers to peer inside human cells in unprecedented detail, fuelling key insights. Electron microscopes use beams of electrons to illuminate objects, and provide much higher magnification than standard light microscopes.
The rate at which electron microscopy images of cells can be generated has accelerated in recent years, says Helen Spiers at the University of Oxford. “We are now producing data at a rate faster than we can analyse it,” she says.
“The gold-standard approach for analysing this visual data to make sense of it is segmentation,” she says. This involves marking out the organelles by tracing lines around their edges in a two-dimensional microscope image. To speed up the process, Spiers and her colleagues regularly enlist the help of citizen scientist volunteers, through the Etch A Cell project.
I like the occasional colouring book and found etching cells in microscope images online similarly comforting. But it is also hugely helpful to the researchers: data gathered through Etch A Cell has helped artificial intelligence software learn to identify some organelles automatically, further accelerating the analysis process.
One of the latest iterations of the project, Etch A Cell – VR, aims to take the process to another level by using segmentation data from citizen scientists to reconstruct three-dimensional cells with labelled organelles that biologists can explore using virtual reality.
“It’s about changing your perspective and allowing you to interact with your data differently,” says Spiers. “Being able to rotate things while you’ve got a VR headset on and just seeing things in three dimensions, you might notice something that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Researchers could use this technology to compare cancerous and non-cancerous cells, for instance. “That can help you understand what’s gone wrong and how you can potentially fix it,” says Spiers.
You can find all the Etch A Cell projects, and take part in Etch A Cell – VR, by heading to the zooniverse.org web portal for citizen science.