Cells Over Time

Whitehead Institute scientists are finding new ways to follow cells as they move around the body, pass through their life cycles, and arrive at their ultimate fates. Instead of just a snapshot, these approaches provide a rich history of their function, their journey, and in some instances their role in disease, when they go awry.

An illustration of a clock on the wall represents the growth of cells over time.

Imagine an omnipresent view of  biological processes. From where you sit, you can see it all happening, cells dying, cells dividing, emergent properties appearing from the melee. Unfortunately, that’s not how scientists are often able to study biology. 

“Biology is a very dynamic process,” said Matthew Jones, a graduate student in the lab of Whitehead Institute Member Jonathan Weissman. “Take, for example, embryogenesis, where over the course of a couple of days a single cell can become a very complex collection of tissues. But a lot of the measurements we take are static.”

Due to technological constraints, scientists are often limited to snapshots of what is going on — a slide under a microscope, a DNA sequence, or an analysis of the RNA transcripts that are floating around in a cell at any given time. In recent years, however, new technologies have allowed researchers to track cells through time and across generations in more detail than ever before, watching and recording as they go about their tiny lives. These advances have helped them to dive deeper into a variety of biological mysteries, and to study dynamic microcosms of evolution and development. 

How do the cells in an embryo give rise to an adult organism? When do cancer cells leap from their original location to form distant metastases? And how do cells in a body know when part of that body is missing, and work together to regenerate? In the collection of multimedia stories linked below, we explore a few of Whitehead Institute scientists’ contributions to this field — the methods they have developed, the knowledge they have gained, and the different cells they follow through time to learn more about our biology in both health and disease.

Stories in this collection

In this special episode of AudioHelicase, we talk to three researchers about the cells in our bodies that can regenerate – and those that can’t. We ask, why can some cells no longer renew themselves? And, importantly, can we change that?