Project (2004-2005)

Fluorophores and Electronic Imaging in Cell Biology, 1945–95

This project foregrounded the tool of light in the history of molecular biology by offering an historical analysis of the coupling of fluorescence light microscopy and electronic/digital imaging from 1945–95. Arguably the two most significant scientific developments of the past 50 years have been molecular biology and computer science, and this study examined how these two fields came together to create knowledge about living organisms. In the experimental systems analyzed here it became clear that observing, recording, and archiving images of animated living processes at subcellular levels occurs through an interplay of molecule, photon, electron, bit, and pixel.

Light is what biologists shine on specimens and introduce into cells when they work with fluorescent probes. Light becomes the identifier of underlying proteins: varying wavelengths distinguish proteins and photons are a unit of measurement when assessing quantity. Electronic imagers and intensifiers control, manipulate and convert photons into electrons, multiply them, and reconvert it all back into photons again emanating from a screen. Computer technology allows enhancement of image details through control of light intensity and contrast. Light, Nancy Anderson argued, is simultaneously the mediator between seeing subject and object seen as well as the object itself the microscopist seeks to observe.

Although the study considered significant human players and key events in the development of fluorescence light microscopy, the emphasis was on instruments and tools. Starting with the introduction of photoelectric cells and photomultipliers into the cell biology laboratory, the narrative followed through to the use of video, digital cameras, and computer hardware and software to record animated cells, measure protein content, and enhance images. Attention was given to the development of necessary computer software in the laboratory (GeneJoin), within public/government institutions (NIH-Image), and commercially (Metamorph). Important technological developments such as Fluorescence in situ Hybridization, 3D optical sectioning techniques, digital deconvolution, two-photon laser scanning, and the overwhelmingly successful transgenic fluorescence molecule, Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) served as case studies to show how it is accurate to “decenter” the molecule in molecular studies.