Going Live

How to choose a live-cell imaging microscope setup from the maze of available options

Nov 1, 2007
Alla Katsnelson

If you're someone who wants to visualize live cells, the proliferation of imaging technology has spawned almost as many live-cell setups as there are experiments that require them. Many options are available: confocal microscopes such as spinning-disk systems, newer modifications including swept scanning and resonance confocal systems, more specialized approaches such as two-photon microscopes or total internal reflection fluorescence techniques, and the numerous live-cell applications in wide-field microscopes. Navigating the options can be frustrating.

"Live-cell imaging is in general a give and take," says Paul Maddox, a microscopist and cell biologist at the University of Toronto. The higher the spatial resolution, the better the information you can obtain; however, higher resolution requires more light, which damages the living tissue.

Each setup has pros and cons in features such as light sensitivity, speed, spatial resolution, flexibility in using different fluorescence filters, degree of photobleaching, depth to which the light penetrates the tissue, and of course, cost. "It's not even easy to find people to give you a fair comparison, says Peter Robin Hiesinger, a neurogeneticist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "The best solution is to try them all."

With that in mind, The Scientist interviewed five researchers, who described their decision processes. See the profiles of researchers' stories in the box to the right.