Imaging the Future: Gaining a Deeper Understanding of the Human Body


The human body is incredibly complex — each organ made of different tissues with trillions of cells and millions of proteins in each one that orchestrate every biological process. Biomedical research has advanced our understanding of how our bodies work, but it still only provides a snapshot of the human body. Imaging technology has the potential to see biological processes anywhere in a human body in real time and across spatial scales to unlock new understanding of human health and disease. To help get us there, CZI’s Imaging program supports researchers who are expanding access to imaging training and technology, and developing cutting-edge technologies to view biological processes deep in the body to drive better discoveries on how to cure, prevent, or manage disease.

Connecting experts, creating networks of knowledge, and building tools and new technology to accelerate imaging science is what differentiates our work. In 2021 alone, we welcomed nearly 80 new grantees to develop imaging tech tool napari’s growing ecosystem of plugins, improve visualization of proteins, advance imaging technology, and foster international networks of imaging experts. These researchers and their teams play a critical role in deepening our understanding of human health through advanced imaging techniques. As part of our 10-year vision in science, we are also creating a new advanced imaging institute to push forward revolutionary new imaging technologies through high-risk, high-reward projects.

Keep reading to meet some of the imaging scientists who are helping to visualize biology in action to amazing extents.

Mikhail Shapiro

The color-scaled signal is gene expression activity from a glioblastoma tumor growing inside the mouse brain (expressing our acoustic reporter genes), set against the brain’s vasculature (visualized using Doppler imaging). Image Credit: Claire Rabut (Shapiro Lab).

Imagine if we could use ultrasound to detect changes in tumor cells in real-time. While ultrasound imaging is a remarkable technology that has had a huge impact on medicine, it currently can’t see the specific functions of cells and molecules, only larger structures.

Imaging grantee Mikhail Shapiro is creating the first-of-it-kind contrast agent called acoustic biomolecules that will allow ultrasound to image the function of cells deep inside the body. A model of this technology enabled an ultrasound scan to detect a glioblastoma tumor inside a mouse brain (pictured here) — allowing researchers to see which cells are actively expressing genes. This new technology has the potential to change how we understand and treat health and disease — from neuroscience, immunology and cancer biology to development, gene therapy and cellular medicine.

Paul Hernandez-Herrera

Video by Dr. C. Wood at the Mexican National Laboratory for Advanced Microscopy.

This dazzling light show reveals how neurons fire in a mouse brain — be sure to watch to the end. This video starts at the brain surface and focuses continually to a depth of 1.6 mm as neurons pass information to other parts of the body.

Breakthroughs in imaging science have enabled researchers to witness life in action. Imaging scientist Paul Hernandez-Herrera is using artificial intelligence to help researchers analyze the vast amounts of data in videos like this one in a reliable and automated way. Hernandez-Herrera works closely with biological and clinical researchers, creating AI algorithms to perform bioimage analysis and develops solutions tailored to their needs.

Xiaoyu Shi and Jennifer Prescher

Super-resolution expansion microscopy image of a human cell nucleus. The anti-localization between nuclear lamina (cyan) and nuclear pore complexes (red) indicates their opposite impact on chromatin regulation.

Did you know? There are trillions of cells in your body, and millions of proteins in each cell. Xiaoyu Shi wants to learn more about the millions of proteins in our cells, and also understand how they come together to perform the fundamental tasks of life. To do this, she is developing new methods in super-resolution microscopy to render 3D visualizations of how proteins interact with each other. Jennifer Prescher collaborates with Xiaoyu Shi, and says,

“We can learn so much about living things just by watching them!” -Jennifer Prescher

To do this, the Prescher lab is designing long-lasting molecular probes that can be activated by researchers to illuminate a protein and its neighbors in living cells and tissues. Together, they’re working to make it easier to see protein interactions at high resolution, and better understand how the millions of microscopic proteins in our cells come together to keep our cells functioning in health and disease.

Holger Müller

Laser-phase contrast electron microscope showing (from left to right) control system, laser rack, laser input optics, microscope column, laser output output optics.

Ever wonder what it takes to capture these incredible shots? Grantee Holger Müller gives a behind-the-scenes look at the incredible technology used for these high-resolution images. This photo shows a laser-phase contrast electron microscope with (from left to right) a control system, laser rack, laser input optics, microscope column, and laser output optics.

“What could be more fascinating than imaging? The telescope and the microscope have helped humanity look into the sky and inside into our cells.” -Holger Müller

Müller and his team are using cutting-edge physics to help biologists get the maximum amount of information from an electron beam and take quantum imaging to the next level.

Allison Dennis and Carolyn Bayer

Allison Dennis and her colleague collaborate in the lab.

Preeclampsia poses a major risk to expecting parents. Imaging researcher Allison Dennis is developing tools that combine light and ultrasound to help clinicians screen for this major health issue and other pregnancy-related complications, helping both patients and their babies.

Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, but it often starts with insufficient development of the placenta. While ultrasound imaging and Doppler ultrasound can tell us the size of the placenta and blood flow through its larger blood vessels, this doesn’t tend to correlate well with preeclampsia and there’s a need for imaging techniques that can reach deeper tissue depths.

“​​It is clear that scientific imaging will remain a critical part of our healthcare in the future, presenting many opportunities for impact.” -Allison Dennis

Dennis is part of a team working to develop biocompatible and biodegradable nanoparticles that can be used as photoacoustic contrast agents to enable imaging at significantly greater depths in clinical settings. This will be a key tool to developing earlier diagnosis and treatment of preeclampsia and other placental disorders.

Ryan Cabeen

Diffusion MRI visualization created using a technique called stick stippling, showing an image slice through a rat brain created by averaging many individual ones.

Scientist Ryan Cabeen is combining science and art with this vibrant 3D visualization of a rat brain. This composite was created from many individual rats using diffusion MRI imaging. Seeing life at this scale allows researchers to visualize, measure and analyze the biological processes underlying health and disease.

Cabeen and his team are working to accelerate the pace of discovery in basic neuroscience by building the next generation of computational tools and making imaging research more approachable.

Rossana Melo

Electron tomography revealing, within a leukocyte, the 3D internal organization of specialized organelles (secretory granules) involved in the release of immune molecules.

“We live in a world of extraordinary beauty and diversity that is not captured by the human eye. It can only be explored through a microscope.” -Rossana Melo

Rossana Melo is an imaging scientist who uses high-resolution imaging to see how immune cells respond to infections, including from SARS-CoV-2. By watching how our bodies fight infection, we can better learn how to wield our immune systems to create new therapeutics. She’s also working to expand access to electron microscopy technologies and training for young scientists in Brazil.

Prisca Liberali

3D organoids grow from individual stem cells from mouse and human intestine.

Scientist Prisca Liberali is imaging the future by building open source tools for imaging analysis. Her team uses napari, a community-built, Python-based, open source tool. Designed for browsing, annotating, and analyzing large multi-dimensional images, napari visualizes images and overlays multivariate features extracted from the segmented cells. They hope to develop a flexible, easy-to-use and library-agnostic framework for building interactive plotting tools for the napari community.

Have a cool microscopy image or video that you captured in your research? Share it on Twitter and Instagram with #ImagingTheFuture.



Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Science

Supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.