I think it must’ve been about fifth grade when my class went on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to see a fancy new microscope. (While the images we saw were fascinating enough to be memorable all these years later, sadly, the type of microscope made no such impression on me.) The scientists showing it off were clearly thrilled at their newest acquisition.
These days, I get to visit a lot of labs. And it seems no matter where I go — pharma, biotech, major biomedical center, or small academic lab — someone always has a cool image to show me. RNAi caught in the act, a tagged protein expressing, a glowing zebrafish. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for it. (Who isn’t?) But I have wondered, walking through these labs otherwise filled with ultra-high-throughput technologies, why it is that the state of imaging still essentially revolves around a researcher peering into the depths of a microscope and looking at one picture at a time —just like it was so many years ago at the museum.
Last year, a scientist at the Whitehead MIT BioImaging Center convinced me that times were indeed changing. In the past couple of years, researchers have really tackled automated microscopes and other rapid-acquisition image technologies and are just now finding ways to combine that imaging data with the reams of data sets already pouring out of systems biology fields — especially RNAi and gene expression. In our cover story this month, we profile scientists who are leading the charge to bring imaging into the fold (in particular, imaging of cells and organisms), and we also examine the advances that have enabled this jump in technology as well as the shortcomings it still faces. While I’m on the subject, GT gives a hearty thanks to Paul Matsudaira and James Evans at the Whitehead imaging center for providing us with the shots we used on the cover.
Elsewhere in the issue, we focus on scientists who study microRNAs. You’ve heard a lot about microRNAs —often in the pages of this magazine —but what impresses us is the scope of research centered around these tiny pieces of RNA and how quickly they’ve been ushered into genomic labs. Our article focuses on the function, evolution, and possible clinical applications of microRNAs.
Also in this issue, we have the first of our year’s new theme in roundtable discussions. As you know, we try to choose a forward-looking theme for our roundtables and then, over the course of three separate sessions, our experts hash out the topic. This year, we’re talking about “the lab of the future.” What will a systems biology lab look like five or 10 years from now? We’ll be talking about the bioinformatics and personnel components of this in future roundtables. For this issue, we focused on robotics and automation, delving into how to keep labs on the cutting edge, when to buy a technology and when to hold off, and what new technologies need to be invented to keep this field charging forward.
Meredith W. Salisbury, Editor