The Digital Cell: Workflow

The future of cell biology, even for small labs, is quantitative and computational. What does this mean and what should it look like?

My group is not there yet, but in this post I’ll describe where we are heading. The graphic below shows my current view of the ideal workflow for my lab.


The graphic is pretty self-explanatory, but to walk you through:

  • A lab member sets up a microscopy experiment. We have standardised procedures/protocols in a lab manual and systems are in place so that reagents are catalogued to minimise error.
  • Data goes straight from the microscope to the server (and backed-up). Images and metadata are held in a database and object identifiers are used for referencing in electronic lab notebooks (and for auditing).
  • Analysis of the data happens with varying degrees of human intervention. The outputs of all analyses are processed automatically. Code for doing these steps in under version control using git (github).
  • Post-analysis the processed outputs contain markers for QC and error checking. We can also trace back to the original data and check the analysis. Development of code happens here too, speeding up slow procedures via “software engineering”.
  • Figures are generated using scripts which are linked to the original data with an auditable record of any modification to the image.
  • Project management, particularly of paper writing is via trello. Writing papers is done using collaborative tools. Everything is synchronised to enable working from any location.
  • This is just an overview and some details are missing, e.g. backup of analyses is done locally and via the server.

Just to reiterate, that my team are not at this point yet, but we are reasonably close. We have not yet implemented three of these things properly in my group, but in our latest project (via collaboration) the workflow has worked as described above.

The output is a manuscript! In the future I can see that publication of a paper as a condensed report will give way to making the data, scripts and analysis available, together with a written summary. This workflow is designed to allow this to happen easily, but this is the topic for another post.

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.

Zero Tolerance

We were asked to write a Preview piece for Developmental Cell. Two interesting papers which deal with the insertion of amphipathic helices in membranes to influence membrane curvature during endocytosis were scheduled for publication and the journal wanted some “front matter” to promote them.

Our Preview is paywalled – sorry about that – but I can briefly tell you why these two papers are worth a read.

The first paper – a collaboration between EMBL scientists led by Marko Kaksonen – deals with the yeast proteins Ent1 and Sla2. Ent1 has an ENTH domain and Sla2 has an ANTH domain. ENTH stands for Epsin N-terminal homology whereas ANTH means AP180 N-terminal homology. These two domains are known to bind membrane and in the case of ENTH to tubulate and vesiculate giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs). Ent1 does this via an amphipathic helix “Helix 0” that inserts into the outer leaflet to bend the membrane. The new paper shows that Ent1 and Sla2 can bind together (regulated by PIP2) and that ANTH regulates ENTH so that it doesn’t make lots of vesicles, instead the two team up to make regular membrane tubules. The tubules are decorated with a regular “coat” of these adaptor proteins. This coat could prepattern the clathrin lattice. Also, because Sla2 links to actin, then actin can presumably pull on this lattice to help drive the formation of a new vesicle. The regular spacing might distribute the forces evenly over large expanses of membrane.

The second paper – from David Owen’s lab at CIMR in Cambridge – shows that CALM (a protein with an ANTH domain) actually has a secret Helix 0! They show that this forms on contact with lipid. CALM influences the size of clathrin-coated pits and vesicles, by influencing curvature. They propose a model where cargo size needs to be matched to vesicle size, simply due to the energetics of pit formation. The idea is that cells do this by regulating the ratio of AP2 to CALM.

You can read our preview and the papers by Skruzny et al and Miller et al in the latest issue of Dev Cell.

The post title and the title of our Preview is taken from “Zero Tolerance” by Death from their Symbolic LP. I didn’t want to be outdone by these Swedish scientists who have been using Bob Dylan song titles and lyrics in their papers for years.

Joining A Fanclub

When I started this blog, my plan was to write about interesting papers or at least blog about the ones from my lab. This post is a bit of both.

I was recently asked to write a “Journal Club” piece for Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, which is now available online. It’s paywalled unfortunately. It’s also very short, due to the format. For these reasons, I thought I’d expand a bit on the papers I highlighted.

I picked two papers from Dick McIntosh’s group, published in J Cell Biol in the early 1990s as my subject. The two papers are McDonald et al. 1992 and Mastronarde et al. 1993.

Almost everything we know about the microanatomy of mitotic spindles comes from classical electron microscopy (EM) studies. How many microtubules are there in a kinetochore fibre? How do they contact the kinetochore? These questions have been addressed by EM. McIntosh’s group in Boulder, Colorado have published so many classic papers in this area, but there are many more coming from Conly Rieder, Alexey Khodjakov, Bruce McEwen and many others. Even with the advances in light microscopy which have improved spatial resolution (resulting in a Nobel Prize last year), EM is the only way to see individual microtubules within a complex subcellular structure like the mitotic spindle. The title of the piece, Super-duper resolution imaging of mitotic microtubules, is a bit of a dig at the fact that EM still exceeds the resolution available from super-resolution light microscopy. It’s not the first time that this gag has been used, but I thought it suited the piece quite well.

There are several reasons to highlight these papers over other electron microscopy studies of mitotic spindles.

It was the first time that 3D models of microtubules in mitotic spindles were built from electron micrographs of serial sections. This allowed spatial statistical methods to be applied to understand microtubule spacing and clustering. The software that was developed by David Mastronarde to do this was later packaged into IMOD. This is a great software suite that is actively maintained, free to download and is essential for doing electron microscopy. Taking on the same analysis today would be a lot faster, but still somewhat limited by cutting sections and imaging to get the resolution required to trace individual microtubules.

kfibreThe paper actually showed that some of the microtubules in kinetochore fibres travel all the way from the pole to the kinetochore, and that interpolar microtubules invade the bundle occasionally. This was an open question at the time and was really only definitively answered thanks to the ability to digitise and trace individual microtubules using computational methods.

The final thing I like about these papers is that it’s possible to reproduce the analysis. The methods sections are wonderfully detailed and of course the software is available to do similar work. This is in contrast to most papers nowadays, where it is difficult to understand how the work has been done in the first place, let alone to try and reproduce it in your own lab.

David Mastronarde and Dick McIntosh kindly commented on the piece that I wrote and also Faye Nixon in my lab made some helpful suggestions. There’s no acknowledgement section, so I’ll thank them all here.


McDonald, K. L., O’Toole, E. T., Mastronarde, D. N. & McIntosh, J. R. (1992) Kinetochore microtubules in PTK cells. J. Cell Biol. 118, 369—383

Mastronarde, D. N., McDonald, K. L., Ding, R. & McIntosh, J. R. (1993) Interpolar spindle microtubules in PTK cells. J. Cell Biol. 123, 1475—1489

Royle, S.J. (2015) Super-duper resolution imaging of mitotic microtubules. Nat. Rev. Mol. Cell. Biol. doi:10.1038/nrm3937 Published online 05 January 2015

The post title is taken from “Joining a Fanclub” by Jellyfish from their classic second and final LP “Spilt Milk”.