Forget High School Biology, Chromosomes Don’t Look like You Think They Do

Thanks to incredible 3D imaging, this team is taking a closer look at our body's makeup.
Fabienne Lang
Chromosome under 3D imagingXiaowei Zhiang Lab

Chromosomes are tall, narrow, mostly X-shaped forms. That's what's taught at school-level biology and chemistry.

However, a team of researchers from Xiaowei Zhang's lab at Harvard University has unveiled that's not an accurate representation at all. "For 90 percent of the time, chromosomes don't exist like that," said Jun-Han Su, formerly at Harvard University and part of the project. 

Using 3D imaging, the team showed just how different chromosomes actually look.

The team's findings were published in the journal Cell in August.

How the team carried out its chromosome imaging

Zooming in close enough to see chromatin structure is no easy task. 

The team captured the essence of chromosomes thanks to a high-resolution 3D-imaging system, which put together 46 wide-lens snapshots of chromosomes and close-ups of one chromosome. Then, the team snapped genomic loci along each of the DNA chains, as Science Alert reports.

The team connected the dots and formed a comprehensive image of the chromatin structure.

"Now we actually have 60 loci simultaneously imaged and localized and, importantly, identified," explained senior researcher Xiaowei Zhuang from Harvard University.

SEE ALSO: RESEARCHERS FIND BREAKTHROUGH TREATMENT FOR DISEASES WHERE CELLS AGE PREMATURELY

"It's quite important to determine the 3D organization," said Zhuang, "to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying the organization and to also understand how this organization regulates genome function."

A 3D Google Maps of the genome

In order to cover the entire genome, however, the team used thousands of images and turned to a language that is already used to organize and store big amounts of information: binary.

Essentially, the team created a 3D Google Maps of the genome, which then allowed them to start analyzing the structure changes over time, EurekAlert reports.

The study isn't over, though, as Zhuang said "It's not going to be possible to build just on our work. We need to build on many, many labs' work in order to have a comprehensive understanding."

The team shared its data on GitHub, so that other researchers can take a look and carry the analysis further.

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