Imagine filming a movie hundreds of thousands of times with an infinitely patient crew. Every time you shoot it, you remove just one thing, be it an actor, a line of dialogue or a crew member. By comparing the resulting films, you’d soon work out which elements were vital to the movie’s success, and which could be lost without consequence. Beate Neumann, Thomas Walter and a group of scientists known as the Mitocheck Consortium have taken just such an approach to better understand one of the most fundamental processes of life.
Some directors employ inanimate objects like Keanu Reeves, but Neumann and Walter wanted to work with far more dramatic stars – DNA, proteins and the like. Their task was to work out which genes were vital for the process of mitosis, the immensely complicated operation where one cell divides into two. To do that, they systematically went through each of the 21,000 or so genes in the human genome and inactivated them, one by one, in different cells. They then filmed these subtly different actors as they divided in two.
This incredible library of around 190,000 films, all shot in time-lapse photography, is publicly available at the Mitocheck website. It’s a treasure trove of data, whose doors have been left for the entire scientific community to walk through, and no doubt they will. Name a gene, any gene, and with a couple of mouse clicks, you can find a movie that shows you what happens when it’s knocked out. You can work out if your favourite gene is essential to cell division, and you can even find other genes that have similar effects.
The study’s leader Jan Ellenberg says, “The response of human cells to silencing each gene is already pre-recorded and scientists can simply log in to our database to check the result, rather than spending weeks or months of time in the laboratory to obtain the data.”
The movies are certainly useful, but they are beautiful in their own right. For a daily and microscopic process, mitosis is an astonishingly beautiful dance. It begins with cells creating the right number of partners, by duplicating all of their chromosomes. At first, the dancers haphazardly mingle with each other but as things get underway, they separate and line up in a neat row. Then, dramatically, they shimmy across to opposite ends of the room, following long spindles of protein. Once the partners split up, the cell pinches down its middle and separates them forevermore. Without this courtly dance, you would never have been anything more than a fertilised egg. Life simply wouldn’t work.