New virtual reality software allows scientists to ‘walk’ inside cells

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IMAGE: DBScan analysis being performed a mature neuron in a typical vLUME workspace.
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Credit: Alexandre Kitching

Virtual reality software which allows researchers to ‘walk’ inside and analyse individual cells could be used to understand fundamental problems in biology and develop new treatments for disease.

The software, called vLUME, was created by scientists at the University of Cambridge and 3D image analysis software company Lume VR Ltd. It allows super-resolution microscopy data to be visualised and analysed in virtual reality, and can be used to study everything from individual proteins to entire cells. Details are published in the journal Nature Methods.

Super-resolution microscopy, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2014, makes it possible to obtain images at the nanoscale by using clever tricks of physics to get around the limits imposed by light diffraction. This has allowed researchers to observe molecular processes as they happen. However, a problem has been the lack of ways to visualise and analyse this data in three dimensions.

“Biology occurs in 3D, but up until now it has been difficult to interact with the data on a 2D computer screen in an intuitive and immersive way,” said Dr Steven F. Lee from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”

The vLUME project started when Lee and his group met with the Lume VR founders at a public engagement event at the Science Museum in London. While Lee’s group had expertise in super-resolution microscopy, the team from Lume specialised in spatial computing and data analysis, and together they were able to develop vLUME into a powerful new tool for exploring complex datasets in virtual reality.

“vLUME is revolutionary imaging software that brings humans into

Cambridge researchers create VR software that allows scientists to ‘walk’ inside cells

A collaborative project between 3D image analysis software company Lume VR Ltd. and scientists at the University of Cambridge showed off a new virtual reality tool today that gives scientists a new view of the inner workings of human cells.

The researchers hope the Google Street View-style tool will provide an up close and personal way to understand fundamental problems in biology to help new treatments for disease. The details are published in the scientific journal “Nature Methods.”

By using VR, scientists can “walk” through the “byways” and “highways” within the cells themselves and see proteins fold and unfold. They also can potentially see where things go wrong when they go wrong and even rewind biological processes by looking through recorded and visualized datasets.

The software, vLUME, uses super-high-resolution microscopy data that is collected, collated and digested. After that, the data needs to be rendered in a manner understandable by humans, and that’s where the immersive nature of virtual reality comes in.

By donning a VR headset, researchers can then dive into the internal structures of a human cell and look at the structure of a cell wall, a Golgi apparatus (the part of a cell involved in intracellular transport), the warps and waves of a mitochondria (the provisioner of energy) or the folds of an individual protein that could be malformed. They can even pull back to view the roadmap of an entire cell.

“Biology occurs in 3D, but up until now it has been difficult to interact with the data on a 2D computer screen in an intuitive and immersive way,” said Dr. Steven F. Lee from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “It wasn’t until we started seeing our data in virtual reality that everything clicked into place.”

The team from Lume specialized originally in