Perspectives For The Future

Advances in bioengineering will make major contributions not only to our understanding of cell and tissue function but also to the quality of human health. In a glass slide consisting of microfabricated wells and channels, for example, reagents can be introduced and exposed to selected parts of individual cells; the responses of the cells can then be detected by light microscopy and analyzed by powerful image-processing software. These types of studies will lead to discovery of new drugs, detection of subtle phenotypes of mutant cells (e.g., tumor cells), and development of comprehensive models of cellular processes. Bioengineers also are fabricating artificial tissues based on a synthetic three-dimensional architecture incorporating layers of different cells. Eventually such artificial tissues will provide replacements for defective tissues in sick, injured, or aging individuals.

Microscopy will continue to be a major tool in cell biology, providing images that relate to both the chemistry(i.e., interactions among proteins) and the mechanics (i.e., movements) involved in various cell processes. The forces causing molecular and cellular movements will be directly detected by fluorescent sensors in cells and the extracellular matrix. Improvements to high-resolution imaging methods will permit studies of single molecules in live cells, something that is currently possible only in vitro. Finally, cells will be studied in more natural contexts, not on glass coverslips but in 3D gels of extracellular matrix molecules. To aid in the imaging, the use of more fluorescent labels and tags will allow visualization of five or six different types of molecules simultaneously. With more labeled proteins, the complex interactions among proteins and organelles will become better understood.

Finally, the electron microscope will become the dominant instrument for studying protein machines in vitro and in situ. Tomographic methods applied to single cells and molecules combined with automated reconstruction methods will generate models of protein-based structures that cannot be determined by x-ray crystallography. High resolution three-dimensional models of molecules in cells will help explain the intricate biochemical interactions among proteins.

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