Cutting-edge technology, zooming in on life at the tiniest scales

Taking a photo of yourself or your surroundings has never been easier. All you need is a smartphone, tablet, or a digital camera. In order to image biological structures, a stronger magnification is usually required. Additionally, small biological structures often have to be made visible first.

Zebrafish scales viewed under a scanning electron microscope
What look like sand dunes in the desert are actually muscles beneath the epidermis of a zebrafish embryo, revealed in this image from a scanning electron microscope. The epidermis is patterned by ridges, which will form the fish’s scales. (Credit: Nicole Schieber, EMBL)

Depending on the imaging technique, this can be done by attaching fluorescent reporter molecules to them, or by adding compounds to increase the contrast. For many imaging experiments to work, molecules or subcellular structures have to be fixed in space. Adding chemical glues, letting molecules form a regular crystal, or cooling down the sample to very low temperatures are the most common approaches.

Other experiments, on the contrary, require cells and molecules to be able to move around freely. This helps biologists understand how cells develop over time, how tissues form, and how proteins shuttle between different cellular compartments to perform their function.

The technology and experimental approaches in biological imaging are constantly being refined. This allows for higher resolutions, faster imaging times, better contrasts – in sum, sharper and more detailed images and videos of biological structures and processes. At EMBL, numerous researchers from multiple disciplines are involved in advancing imaging techniques.

The atomic structures of molecules are revealed at EMBL Hamburg and Grenoble, where scientists use high-energy radiation in synchrotrons, electron lasers, and X-ray beamlines to visualize crystallized proteins. At EMBL Heidelberg and Rome, electron microscopy and advanced light microscopy approaches are developed and applied. These techniques allow researchers to determine the shapes of proteins and protein complexes, follow in real-time how cellular structures change upon external stimuli, or investigate how cells develop into more complex biological structures.

The Heidelberg campus is currently expanded with a brand-new imaging facility to further foster these activities. At EMBL Barcelona, entire biological structures such as tissues and organs can be visualized through ‘mesoscopic imaging’. This unique combination of state-of-the-art imaging technologies enables researchers at EMBL to visualize biology across multiple scales.


Imaging news from EMBL’s six sites


EMBL facilities offering imaging services

Electron microscopy

Advanced expertise in electron microscopy, from sample preparation to image analysis, for a wide variety of biological samples.

Mesoscopic imaging

Access to imaging platforms and support services to enable 3D imaging of biological tissues over time.


Basic stereo microscopes, widefield fluorescence microscopes, a confocal laser scanning workstation, and the latest light sheet technology.

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From microscopy to mycology, from development to disease modelling, EMBL researchers cover a wide range of topics in the biological sciences.