This Is the Most Complex Video of a Real Cell Ever Made

Image: Valm et al
Image: Valm et al

The best part of high school biology was the movies. Some of them basically amounted to weird close-up fetish porn, sure. Other high school biology videos were actually educational, including the only one that ever taught me anything about the human cell, Inner Life of a Cell. But a new video puts them all to shame.


Rather than using boring old computer-generated graphics, a team of American scientists made what might be the most complex video of a cell in action yet. It’s all based on a real monkey cell, analyzed with a series of proteins, dyes and a special kind of microscope.

Sure, other microscopes have made videos of cells moving, or pairs of cell parts, called organelles, interacting. But “this is the first time we’re doing this many compartments in live cells,” Sarah Cohen, scientist at the National Institutes of Health, told Gizmodo.

The video shows the chaotic movement of lipid (fat) droplets traveling through different parts of the cell. You might remember that the cell is a factory, where the mitochondria is the power plant. The endoplasmic reticulum makes stuff like proteins and lipids, and the golgi apparatus packages them. The lysosomes and peroxisomes break things down. Now, you can see all those organelles doing their jobs simultaneously, thanks to the research published today in the journal Nature.

Getting such a detailed look at the cell’s function was surprisingly intuitive. The researchers tagged the different organelles with proteins that fluoresce in response to different colors of light. They also soaked the cell in a dye that sticks to lipid molecules so they could visualize how they traveled between organelles. A special microscope looks at the cell in slices, rather than viewing the entire thing at once, which prevents the light from killing it. The study added evidence that the endoplasmic reticulum serves as the central hub of the cell, and looks like a mesh, interacting with nearly everything else.

Other researchers are excited about the new tool. “[The study authors’] breakthrough opens up wide-ranging opportunities for exploring the molecular mechanisms that underpin the organelle community’s dance,” Sang-Hee Shim, assistant chemistry professor at Korea University wrote in commentary for Nature. 

Like any scientific method, there are limitations to this one. Too much time under the microscope could harm the cell, for example. Plus, the resolution isn’t as good as more invasive microscope techniques, so it might muddle some of the finer details, like the interaction point between the mitochondrion and the endoplasmic reticulum, said Shim.

But the method will definitely help scientists figure out exactly how the cell works and how molecules move around inside of it. This could be useful for things like drug screening or personalized medicine, applications where you need to know exactly where and how a molecule is moving down to the cellular level, said Cohen.


Really, it’s just cool as hell.



Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds


Joe the Tech

The video’s cool, but that music is intense. Kinda felt like a cyberpunk daydream watching it.