Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Mapping Molecules in their Cellular Compartments

Alice Ting

Alice Ting, Ph.D.
Credit: Vilcek Foundation

If you were trying to understand how a city functions, it would be useful to map not only its streets and buildings, but to identify all of the people in the city and pinpoint their locations at different times throughout the day. That’s pretty much what biologists would like to do for a cell: map an entire living cell in a way that identifies all of its parts and shows their precise locations at various points in time.

The challenge has been developing the tools and technologies needed to create such a map. Among those who have risen to that challenge is Alice Ting, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, and winner of a 2008 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and a 2013 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award.

Currently, we can use a fluorescence or electron microscope to take images of a live cell and potentially tag a handful of molecules to determine their location. But this approach captures only a few of the 20,000 or so proteins in a human cell. Alternatively, we can use a technique in which we basically purée a cell and inject the jumbled mix into a device called a mass spectrometer. This method can analyze thousands of proteins simultaneously—but unfortunately it provides no information about where the proteins are located within the cell. Some have tried to extract certain parts of the cell for mass spectrometry analysis, but that approach has proven to be quite difficult and unreliable.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.