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New modern microscopy centre brings together different disciplines

Microscopy service, imaging support and method development – these are the three major pillars of the Bioimaging Center (BIC) at the University of Constance that was inaugurated in October 2008. In the following interview, the biochemist and head of the BIC, Dr. Elisa Ferrando-May, gives insights into the equipment used by the new central microscopy platform, which has the additional function of promoting networking among scientists.

Dr. Ferrando-May, what motivated you to open a bioimaging centre at the University of Constance?

Dr. Elisa Ferrando-May © University of Constance/Press office

Bioimaging is gaining in importance as a cross-sector technology, i.e. as the combination of optical high-resolution microscopy, digital image acquisition and the quantitative analysis of recorded images. This development benefits from the huge progress made in the technological development of the devices used which over the last ten years have become quicker, more sensitive and simpler to operate.

At the same time, biology has made enormous progress in cell labelling. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP) which has generated groundbreaking possibilities in the investigation of biological processes in living systems. Paired with mature technologies, this has led to successful breakthroughs in bioimaging. The demand for high-quality microscopy is also increasing. We have since created a central platform for the expensive devices that are required for such work in order to make them available for a maximum number of researchers at our university.

How has the handling of the devices changed over the years?

Microscopes can now be fully computer operated. The user friendliness of the microscopes has considerably improved. In general, an average knowledge of Windows and a basic understanding of microscopy are sufficient to operate the microscopes reasonably well.

Is the development of new platforms already bearing new fruits, particularly as far as the intensive use of new microscopy technology is concerned? 

Yes, this is in fact the case. When it is centrally located, the equipment tends to get used a lot more frequently than when the devices are only available to individual work groups. In 1996, the University of Constance had two confocal microscopes; now we have five. And, amongst other things, this is the result of the growing demand for such microscopes at the university. The establishment of the BIC also guarantees that the equipment is looked after and serviced a lot more effectively. However, the BIC's mission is not only to make the equipment available to researchers, but also to promote networking. Let me give you an example. If a graduate or PhD student has a particular problem to solve, we provide advice on the microscope or piece of equipment that is best suited for his or her task. We also consider it very important to act as point of contact and information provider. We also offer courses and workshops where those who wish to can learn to use the centre's equipment, image analysis software and find practical solutions to different issues. The workshops and training we offer seem to be very popular; so far, we have generally had more applicants than places available.

The Laser Scanning Microscope LSM 510 enables spectral detection to be carried out
The Laser Scanning Microscope LSM 510 enables spectral detection to be carried out © University of Constance/Press office

How much do such highly specialised devices cost?

The most expensive tool is the spectral confocal microscope which the University bought about six years ago for around 350,000 euros.

Who are the main users of the BIC?

The BIC is mainly used by doctoral students from different departments of the Faculty of Biology, including geneticists, immunologists, toxicologists as well as plant physiologists and algae researchers who use microscopes for their research. There are also many chemists who use our equipment, for example for work on the development of fluorescent dyes in investigations into how living cells take up dyes and how they can be labelled.

What kind of role does cooperation play in the Faculty of Computer Sciences?

The BIC is clearly focused on interdisciplinary cooperation. The support we receive from the Faculty of Computer Sciences is very important for us, because image analysis is one of the pillars of imaging. We have two computer science students who help biology students to optimise and quantify the recorded material with special image analysis programmes. This interdisciplinary cooperation is very popular and thus of great importance because biologists tend to have reservations about using such equipment and are reluctant to attend workshops and colloquia on image quantification. At the same time, these are abilities that are required to an increasing extent in scientific publications. Nowadays, it is no longer sufficient to present colourful photos, researchers also have to extract data from the images.

How does interdisciplinary cooperation promote the further development of devices and methods?

It's a question of mutual give and take. Interdisciplinary cooperation enables users to exchange information with many other people who use microscopes for their research. This helps us to find out which digital imaging methods are required and in which direction microscopy needs to develop in order to be able to satisfy certain requirements in the areas of biology, chemistry and physics.

One of the ongoing projects is the "BIC-Image Processing WIKI": what is this?

This refers to the establishment of an interactive knowledge database similar to Wikipedia. Its function is to make our developments and knowledge in the field of microscopy and image analysis available to the public. BIC-Image Processing WIKI will enable users to look at instruction manuals for the operation of devices and imagining software. This information platform is maintained by two computer scientists and gives all those involved in microscopy the possibility of actively participating in shaping the database.

What kind of development do you foresee for the BIC?

It goes without saying that we hope to expand our equipment, either by purchasing new equipment or by relocating a few systems from the individual research groups to the BIC. But this all depends on whether we have the space and whether we have sufficient personnel. Another goal is the commercial use of the laser scanning confocal microscope technology, which was developed in close cooperation with the CAP (Centre for Applied Photonics). We also have plans to expand and potentially offer services to customers from the industrial sector. This could possibly help us to partially cover the costs for personnel and instruments. It would be great if the BIC were able to become financially independent in the future. We hope to intensify our contacts with different University research groups as well as with companies in order to develop solutions for certain research problems.


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