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This picture could pass for abstract art but uses its vivid colors to map the unseen metabolism of cells. The scientific visualization by researchers at the Moran Eye Center is a finalist in this year's Wellcome Image Awards.

By Joseph Rojas-Burke

The Wellcome Image Awards honor the creators of “the most informative, striking and technically excellent” scientific and medical images from around the world. And this year, scientists at the U are finalists with a visualization revealing the unseen metabolism of cells.

The research team members are Robert Marc, Bryan Jones and Jefferson Brown at the U, with Glen Prusky and Nazia Alam at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

Their image could pass for abstract art but uses its vivid colors to map the distribution of molecules active in a section of mouse kidney. Colored probes highlight the locations of specific metabolites: Red for aspartic acid, which links energy metabolism with the chemistry of protein building blocks; green for glutathione, which protects cells from oxidative damage; blue for glutamine, which acts like a storage battery for chemical amino groups transferred among molecules.

Marc, a professor at the U’s School of Medicine and director of research at the John A. Moran Eye Center, writing in the online journal The Conversation, explained how his team made the image:

“We have been perfecting a technology for imaging the metabolism of cells. The core principle is microscopically visualising arrays of up to a dozen different small molecules and computationally fusing these into readable colour images. The molecules are detected by immune probes developed in my laboratory and each mixture of molecules forms a cellular “signature” colour…The image is a thin slice through the various kinds of filtering cells of the mouse kidney. Surprisingly, the images reveal that all tissues, not just kidney, are rainbows of different cell types, each with a unique metabolism. This contradicts our expectation that metabolism is roughly the same in all cells and opens the door for a new generation of molecular tests of cell state in health and disease. Though the kidney yields a spectacular and fiery display, we have yet to craft a theory that explains it.”

You can explore the science in more detail by visiting the website of Marc’s lab, which includes a technical paper describing the imaging technique and its applications in different tissues.


Joseph Rojas-Burke is a communication specialist at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email him at