I Know What I Like


I guess most of us at some time or other will have stood gazing at a painting for a while before muttering ‘Wow, that’s awesome’ or words to that effect if we’re not into the modern argot. Some combination of subject, style and colour has turned our crank and left us thinking we wouldn’t mind having that on our kitchen wall.

Given the thousands of years of man’s daubing and the zillions of forms that have appeared from pre-historic cave paintings through Eastern painting, the Italian Renaissance, Impressionism, Dadaism and the rest to Pop Art, it’s amazing that everyone isn’t a fanatic for one sort or another. The sane might say the field’s given itself a bad name by passing off tins of baked beans, stuff thrown at a canvas and unmade beds as ‘art’ but, even so, it seems odd that it remains a minority obsession.

Can science help?

Science is wonderful, as we all know, but the notion that it might arouse the collective artistic lust seems fanciful. Nevertheless, unnoticed by practically everyone, our vast smorgasbord of smears has been surreptitiously joined over the last 30 years by a new form: an ever-expanding avalanche of pics created by biologists trying to pin down how animals work at the molecular level. The crucial technical development has been the application of fluorescence in the life sciences: flags that glow when you shine light on them and can be stuck on to molecules to track what goes on in cells and tissues. The pioneer of this field was Roger Tsien who died, aged 64, in 2016.

Because this has totally transformed cell biology we’ve run into lots of brilliant examples in these pages — recently in Shifting the Genetic Furniture, in Caveat Emptor and John Sulston: Biologist, Geneticist and Guardian of our Heritage and in the use of red and green tags for picking out individual types of proteins that mark mini-cells within cells in Lorenzo’s Oil for Nervous Breakdowns.

To mark the New Year this piece looks at science from a different angle by focussing not on the scientific story but on the beauty that has become a by-product of this pursuit of knowledge.

Step this way: entrance free

So let’s take a stroll through our science gallery and gaze at just a few, randomly selected works of art.

  1. Cells grown in culture:

This was one of the first experiments in my laboratory using fluorescently labelled antibodies, carried out by a student, Emily Hayes, so long ago that she now has a Ph.D., a husband and two children. The cells are endothelial cells (that line blood vessels). Blue: nuclei; green: F-actin; red: Von Willebrand factor, a protein marker for endothelium.


  1. Two very recent images taken by my colleague Roderik Kortlever of a senescent mouse fibroblast and of mouse breast tissue:







3. Waves of calcium in firing neurons:

One of my fondest memories is helping to do the first experiment that measured the level of calcium within a cell, carried out with my colleague the late Roger Tsien and two other friends. I only grew the cells: Roger had designed and made the molecule, quin2. We didn’t know it at the time but Roger’s wonder molecule was the first of many intracellular ‘reporters.’ Roger shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein with organic chemist Osamu Shimomura and neurobiologist Martin Chalfie.

This wonderful video of a descendant of quin2 in nerve cells was made in Dr. Sakaguchi’s lab at Iowa State University.


4. Calcium wave flooding a fertilized egg: Taro Kaneuchi and colleagues at the Tokyo Metropolitan University:

Click for a time-lapse movie of an egg cell that has been artificially stimulated to show the kind of calcium change that happens at fertilization. In this time-lapse movie the calcium level reaches a maximum signal intensity after about 30 min before gradually decreasing to the basal level.


5. The restless cell (1):

This movie shows how protein filaments in cells can continuously break down and reform – called treadmilling. Visualised in HeLa cells using a green fluorescent protein that sticks to microtubules (tubular polymers made up of the protein tubulin) by HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


6. The restless cell (2):

This movie shows how mitochondria (organelles within the cell) are continuously changing shape and moving within the cell’s interior (cytosol). Red marks the mitochondria; green DNA within the nucleus. HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


7. Cell division:

Pig kidney cells undergoing mitosis. Red marks DNA (nucleus); green is tubulin: HAMAMATSU PHOTONICS.


8. DNA portrait of Sir John Sulston by Marc Quinn commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery:This image looks a bit drab in the present context but in some ways it’s the most dramatic of all. John Sulston shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz for working out the cell lineage of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans (i.e. how it develops from a single, fertilized egg to an adult). He went on to sequence the entire DNA of C. elegans. Published in 1998, it was the first complete genome sequence of an animal — an important proof-of-principle for the Human Genome Project that followed and for which Sulston directed the British contribution at the Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire, England. The project was completed in 2003.

The portrait shows colonies of bacteria in a jelly that, together, carry all Sulston’s DNA. This represents DNA cloning in which DNA fragments, taken up by bacteria after insertion into a circular piece of DNA (a plasmid), are multiplied to give many identical copies for sequencing.


9. “Brainbow” mice by Tamily Weissman at Harvard University:

The science behind this astonishing image builds on the work of Roger Tsien. Mice are genetically engineered to carry three different fluorescent proteins corresponding to the primary colours red, yellow and blue. Within each cell recombination occurs randomly, giving rise to different colours. The principle of mixing primary colours is the same as used in colour televisions.  In this view individual neurons in the brain (specifically a layer of the hippocampus) project their dendrites into the outer layer. Other magnificent pictures can be seen in the Cell Picture Show.

It’s certainly science – but is it art?

A few years ago the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge staged Vermeer’s Women, an exhibition of key works by Johannes Vermeer and over thirty other masterpieces from the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. I tried the experiment of standing in the middle of each room and picking out the one painting that, from a distance, most caught my amateur eye. Funny thing was: not one turned out to be by the eponymous star of the show! Wondrous though Vermeer’s paintings were, the ones that really took my fancy were by Pieter de Hooch, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Nicolaes Maes, guys I’d never heard of.

Which made the point that you don’t need to be a big cheese to make a splash and that in the new Dutch Republic of the 17th century, the most prosperous nation in Europe, there was enough money to keep a small army of splodgers in palettes and paint. Skillful and incredibly patient though these chaps were, they simply used the tools available to paint what they saw in the world before them — as for the most part have artists down the ages.

But hang on! Isn’t that what we’ve just been on about? Scientists applying enormous skill and patience in using the tools they’ve developed to visualize life — to image what Nature lays before them. So the only difference between the considerable army of biological scientists around the world making a new art form and the Old Masters is that the newcomers are unveiling life — as opposed to the immortalizing a rather dopy-looking aristocrat learning to play the virginal or some-such.


Not really. Let’s leave the last word to Roger Tsien. In our final picture there are eight bacterial colonies each expressing a different colour of fluorescent protein arranged to grow as a San Diego beach scene in a Petri dish. It became the logo of Roger’s laboratory.




It was the Chinese, inevitably, who invented paper – during the Eastern Han period around 200 CE (or AD as I’d put it). Presumably by 201 AD some of the lads at the back of the class had discovered that this new stuff could be folded and launched to land on the desk of the local Confucius, generating much hilarity and presumably a few whacks with a bamboo cane.

Folding molecules

Not to be outdone some 21st century scholars have shown that you can do molecular origami with DNA. The idea is fairly simple: take a long strand of DNA (several thousand bases) and persuade it to fold into specific shapes by adding ‘staples’ — short bits of DNA (oligonucleotides). When you mix them together the staples and scaffold strands self-assemble in a single step. It’s pretty amazing but it’s driven by the simple concept of Watson-Crick base pairing (adenine (A) binds to thymine (T): guanine (G) to cytosine (C)).

These things are, of course, almost incomprehensibly small — they are biological molecules remember — each being a few nanometers long. Which means that you can plonk a billion on the head of a pin.

Working on this scale has given rise to the science of nanorobotics ­— making gadgets on a nanometre scale (10−9 meters or one thousandth of a millionth of a metre) and the gizmos themselves are nanorobots — nanobots to their friends.

Making parcels of DNA must be great fun but it’s not much use until you include the fact that you can stick protein molecules to your DNA carrier. If you choose a protein that has a known target, for example, something on the surface of a cell, you can now mail the parcels to an address within the body simply by injecting them into the circulation.

Molecular origami: Making a DNA parcel with a targeting protein. A bacteriophage is a virus that infects and replicates in bacteria, used here to make single strands of DNA. Short DNA ‘staples’ are designed to fold the scaffold DNA into specific shapes. Adding an aptamer (e.g., a protein that binds to a specific target molecule on a cell (an antigen)) permits targeting of the nanobot. When it sticks to a cell the package opens and the molecular payload is released (from Fu and Yan, 2012).

Open with care

Hao Yan and colleagues from Arizona State University have now taken nanobots a step further by adding a second protein to their targeted vehicle. For their targeting protein they used something that sticks to a protein present on the surface of cells that line the walls of blood vessels when they are proliferating (the target protein’s called nucleolin). Generally these (endothelial) cells aren’t proliferating so they don’t make nucleolin — and the nanobots pass them by. But growing tumours need to make their own blood supply. To do that they stimulate new vessels to sprout into the tumour (called angiogenesis) and this is what Hao Yan’s nanobots target.

As an anti-cancer tactic the nanobots carried a second protein: thrombin. This is a critical part of the process of coagulation by which damaged blood vessels set about repairing themselves. Thrombin’s role is to convert fibrinogen (circulating in blood) to fibrin strands, hence building up a blood clot to plug the hole. In effect the nanobots cause thrombosis, inducing a blood clot to block the supply line to the tumour.

Blood clotting (coagulation). Platelets form a plug strengthened by fibrin produced by the action of thrombin.

Does it work?

These DNA nanorobots showed no adverse effects either in mice or in Bama miniature pigs, which exhibit high similarity to humans in anatomy and physiology.

Fluorescently labeled nanobots did indeed target tumour blood vessels: the DNA wrapping opens when they attach to cells and the thrombin is released …

Fluorescent nanobots targetting tumour blood vessels (Li et al. 2018). The nanorobots have stuck to cells lining blood vessels (endothelial cells: green membrane) by attaching to nucleolin. After 8 hours the nanorobots (red) have been taken up by the cells and can be seen next to the nucleus (blue).

Most critically these little travellers did have effects on tumour growth. The localized thrombosis caused by the released thrombin resulted in significant tumour cell death and marked increase in the survival of treated mice.

Robotic DNA machines are now being referred to as ‘intelligent vehicles’ — a designation I’m not that keen on. Nevertheless, this is a cunning strategy, not least because, although much effort has gone into anti-angiogenic therapies for cancer, they have not been notably successful. Simply administering thrombin would presumably be fatal but, well wrapped up and correctly addressed, it seems to deliver.


Fu, J. and Yan, H. (2012). Controlled drug release by a nanorobot. Nature Biotechnology 30, 407-408.

Suping Li et al. (2018). A DNA nanorobot functions as a cancer therapeutic in response to a molecular trigger in vivo. Nature Biotechnology doi:10.1038/nbt.4071