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The junction of art and science

Matthias Falk remembers when he was a boy and his father frequently arrived home from work hours late but full of excitement.

“My father was an electron microscopist,” says Falk. “He often stayed late in the lab when he had a specimen that was exceptionally well-prepared and he could see images no one had seen before.”

Falk is now a cell biologist and an assistant professor in Lehigh’s department of biological sciences.

But he is in one way following in his father’s footsteps.

Gap Junction.

Falk uses fluorescent light microscopy and derivatives of proteins to reveal the micro-world of live human cells and the wispy, infinitesimal channels through which cells communicate with each other.

Two of Falk’s microscopic photographs, or micrographs, were on display in a unique art exhibit in San Francisco.

MicroMODERN: An Exhibit of Art in Science”, which ran from Dec. 11-20 at the Limn Gallery, featured 39 microscopic research images created by scientists around the world. The images are enlarged and presented in various mediums to mimic fine art. Most, like Falk’s two, were obtained with a CCD (charge-coupled device) camera using fluorescence microscopy.

MicroMODERN coincides with the annual meeting, in San Francisco, of the American Society for Cell Biology. The exhibited images will be sold after MicroMODERN concludes, and proceeds will be donated to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Filling the knowledge gap

Next year, Falk’s images will appear in the 2004 calendars of Chroma Technology Corp., a leader in optical filter manufacturing, and Applied Precision Inc., which makes the microscopes that Falk uses. Chroma is the lead sponsor of MicroMODERN.

Falk, who served on the cell biology faculty at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., before coming to Lehigh last summer, studies gap junctions, the clusters of channels that join neighboring cells at their membranes and allow cells to communicate by exchanging proteins, electric currents, and ions.

His work is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Gap junctions play an important role in cell growth and stability and in tissue function. By enabling signals to spread, they coordinate such body functions as the beating of the heart and the onset of uterine contractions at childbirth. The malfunctioning of gap junctions can cause hearing loss, skin diseases and cataracts.

MicroModern, 1

Falk gets as much of a thrill out of light microscopy as his father, Heinz Falk, once got out of electron microscopy.

“Fluorescent light microscopy allows us to observe the dynamic behavior of proteins in living cells,” he says. “It gives us a more comprehensive picture of a complex tissue, an entire cell, and its components.

“Seeing and presenting this micro-cosmos to an audience is as exciting as watching a distant galaxy through the Hubble space telescope.”

Showing off what nature has made

MicroModern 2.

Indeed, Falk’s micrographs bear a resemblance to the distant nebulae and galaxies summoned by the Hubble. One of the micrographs on display at the MicroMODERN exhibit shows two images of the same cell after it was stained with antibodies. One image was treated to promote separation of the proteins in the cell nucleus, while the other was left unprocessed. Side by side, the cell images look like pinwheel galaxies.

The other micrograph Falk is displaying in San Francisco, titled “Gap Junction,” calls to mind a nebula. It shows a large assembly of gap junction channels in the surface membranes of two adjacent cells. Some of the channels were labeled, or dyed, with an autofluorescent protein tag emitting blue fluorescence, while the others were labeled with a protein tag emitting yellow-green fluorescence.

In his calendar image, titled “Protein Trafficking,” Falk uses fluorescent markers to illustrate the dynamic processes of protein trafficking and degradation. A variety of cell structures—protein-transporting microtubules, the subunits of gap junction channels, and protein-degrading lysosomes—are highlighted with an impressive array of hues, ranging from yellow to blue to pink to green.

“Nature made these images for us,” says Falk. “The art comes into play with the color selection and image presentation. By using fluorescence, we are able to obtain a structure that an artist could have painted.”

The three micrographs were photographed at Scripps Howard using a Delta Vision Microscope manufactured by API.

In his lab at Lehigh, Falk uses a new automated fluorescent light microscope with filters, excitation light, emission light, a CCD camera, an eyepiece, and a fluorescent light attachment. A computer programs the coordinates of the cell so its gap junctions can be observed over a long period of time.

The MicroMODERN exhibit has already generated a bit of hoopla. Ads have run in major science journals and even on city buses in San Francisco.

“I find it fascinating that science can show the public what nature has made,” Falk says. “Cell biology is my profession. It’s that everyone, not just scientists, can see it.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, December 19, 2003

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