ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology


8, Jan 2024

Visualising Cells

Centre researchers have developed a new technique to see inside cells with unprecedented detail. This reveals a complicated web of interactions that gives us new insights into how cells stay healthy. 

Much like our body needs organs to function, each of our cells has inner “organs” called organelles.  Within each cell, these organelles collaborate, with each performing specific functions. The mitochondria produce energy, the rough endoplasmic reticulum makes and folds proteins, the Golgi apparatus processes proteins and fats and the peroxisome handles the destruction of unnecessary cell fats. 

It’s known that the structures and functions of organelles in cells depend on each other but until now have not been systematically explored. To understand more about how their interaction influences cellular health, a team led by Professor Aleksandra Filipovska at WA’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research used advanced cellular biology techniques to scrutinise organelle structure and function in detail.

The scientists used a powerful imaging technique called focused ion beam scanning electron microscopy to watch what happens with cells deliberately engineered to harbour mutations.

‘It revealed that if one of the organelle team members isn’t doing their job, it can cause trouble for the whole cell – and that has implications for how diseases may be understood and treated,’ says Richard Lee, lead author of a research paper in Nature Cell Biology.

In particular, organelles rely on specific type of fats (ether-glycerophospholipids) to function well. The study found that when certain genes related to these fats were turned off in cells, it caused problems in various organelles.

These gene changes led to a decrease in specific fats in the cells, affecting the structure and function of mitochondria, the cell’s energy producers. Additionally, disrupted fats impacted how different organelles communicated and behaved.

Certain cells, when lacking these fats, showed issues in their Golgi, a structure involved in processing fats. This led to changes that affected overall cell health.

The study explored potential solutions. By providing the cells with specific fat-building blocks, they could partially fix the issues.

‘In essence, this research unveiled how a delicate balance of fats and proteins within cells is crucial for their proper functioning,’ says Richard Lee.

The team also demonstrated that when certain genes were turned off, it caused significant changes in the size and shape of mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cell. The mitochondria, which usually have elongated structures, became smaller and rounder when specific genes related to organelles were deactivated.