Imagine spending your whole life seeing the world in black and white, then seeing a vase of roses in color for the first time. This is sort of what it was for the scientists who took the first multicolored images of cells using an electron microscope. Electron microscopes can magnify an object up to 10 million times, allowing researchers to peer into the inner workings of a cell or a fly’s eye, but until now they could only see in black and White. The new breakthrough – 13 years in the making – uses three different types of rare earth metals called lanthanides (think the top row of that extra block below the periodic table) superimposed one by one on the cells of a microscope slide. The microscope detects when each metal loses electrons and records every single loss as an artificial color. So far, researchers can only produce two colors: red and green, they report online today in Cellular Chemical Biology. Yet the ability to use color creates stark contrasts that grayscale images simply cannot accomplish. The team was able to see a chain of proteins sneaking through a cell membrane (pictured) in more detail than scientists had ever done before, for example. With a few more adjustments and added metal ions, the researchers hope to add more colors to the mix and improve the resolution of the images.
Correction, November 29, 5:40 p.m .: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that researchers could produce three colors. He also said the advancement took 15 years. The article has been corrected.