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Cell bio, automation merge to screen every human gene


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Every now and then, there's a bit of science that's a combination of brute force and tour de force. Examples that spring to mind mostly come from the world of small, manageable experimental animals, like the mapping of every single cell division of the worm C. elegans, a feat that won John Sulston a Nobel Prize. A paper published in this week's Nature takes a method pioneered with C. elegans and extends it to the human genome: researchers have knocked down every single identified human gene, and used an automated imaging system to examine the impact on cell division. All of the 190,000 movies that resulted have been made publicly accessible.

The key to this work was the automation. Researchers have been developing some sophisticated control software that can take time-lapse images using an automated microscope that doubles as a temperature-controlled incubation chamber. The software can move the sample containers in order to image individual portions of them, allowing a plate containing dozens of samples to be imaged in a single experiment. It can also autofocus and track individual cells as they move so that it can adjust the imaging frame accordingly. These techniques can be combined with multiphoton microscopy, which allows fluorescent images to be obtained without damaging the cells via UV radiation.

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