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The world of 3D cells is now open for EPFL students to explore

Eva Kurisinkal working on the new microscope acquired by the DLL. © Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

Eva Kurisinkal working on the new microscope acquired by the DLL. © Alain Herzog / 2019 EPFL

EPFL is Switzerland’s first university to acquire a Nanolive 3D Cell Explorer for educational purposes.


Since spring 2019, EPFL’s students have had a gateway to a new world. That was when EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs (DLL) acquired a 3D Cell Explorer, made by EPFL spin-off Nanolive, for educational purposes. This microscope, which was designed on the EPFL campus, provides high-resolution images of cellular organelles, allowing students to observe them in their natural environment and watch them develop in real time. The images are produced in 3D and without chemical markers, giving students the opportunity to explore the hidden world of cells without damaging them.

Since these instruments went on sale in 2015, they have become widely used for research in a number of laboratories and universities around the world, including Stanford and Harvard. At EPFL, the Laboratory of Cell and Membrane Biology headed by Gisou van der Goot has also acquired one of these microscopes. However, it is rare for them to be used for teaching. In Switzerland, EPFL is the first university to have acquired one for its students. “The technology was developed through EPFL’s education program, and it gives me great pleasure to see today’s students reaping the benefits,” says Dr. Yann Cotte, CEO of Nanolive and co-creator of the microscope. “I hope it will increase the enjoyment they get from discovering and understanding the secret life of cells and help produce a few more biologists who will contribute to advances in research and bio-medical products.”

Dr. Cotte, who has a PhD in physics, developed the technology in 2013 with Fatih Toy, who has a PhD in digital holographic microscopy, under the supervision of Christian Depeursinge, the head of EPFL’s Microvision and Micro-Diagnostics group. Professor Depeursinge was one of the first to combine microscopy with holography, the technique on which the two researchers based their new system. The microscope’s rotating laser records around 100 holograms per rotation, capturing the phase and amplitude of the wave refracted by the various parts of the cell. A software application named STEVE then processes the data and produces 3D images with a resolution below 200 nanometers.

Connecting education with research

“It’s really impressive to see cells in this way, it’s very different from the still pictures you get in biology textbooks,” says Maria Clapés Cabrer, who is studying for a Master’s degree in life sciences engineering at EPFL. Fellow student Aude Sagnimorte added that “the system is easy to use with little handling and the results are very quick, with images appearing in just a few seconds.” These two students recently attended a presentation of the Nanolive microscope in a lecture given as part of the Biomicroscopy II course taught by associate professor Hatice Altug, who took over Dr. Depeursinge’s laboratory in 2013. Starting next year, Dr. Altug wants to incorporate the Nanolive microscope acquired by the DLLs into her course, which looks at the various microscopy techniques. “It’s very important for me to update my course on a regular basis, so that my students can learn about and try out the latest techniques.”

Maartje Bastings, an assistant professor in charge of EPFL’s Programmable Biomaterials Laboratory, is also planning to use the new microscope in her teaching. It will be particularly useful in her practicals, where students make their own cell cultures to create biological micro-tissues. “They will be able to analyze their cell cultures in a more detailed way. Currently, they have to make do with counting dead and living cells,” said Eva Kurisinkal, a doctoral assistant in Dr. Bastings’ laboratory. Kurisinkal, who is studying the environmental conditions that encourage cell reproduction, is also looking forward to using the microscope in her own research. “The spatial positioning of receptors plays a role in cell growth, so observing them in 3D will open up new avenues of investigation.” The aim of the DLLs is to connect education with the latest research advances. “The teaching staff has priority for using this microscope in their classes and practicals, but if it’s available, students can also use it individually,” adds Pierre-Etienne Bourban, in charge of of the engineering, materials and bioengineering DLLs.


Author: Laureline Duvillard