Breaking Boundaries Through Collaboration

Max Planck Florida team develops new technique that results in unprecedented understanding of neuronal behavior.

December 22, 2020
connon and ben

Scientists don’t ask bold questions because they’re easy – it’s the challenge that draws them in. Some questions can’t be answered, not because of a lack of interest or passion – but because the resources aren’t there to make it possible. At Max Planck Florida, our model focuses on eliminating those barriers by providing our scientists with the technology and expertise that helps them take on high risk, high reward projects.

Working in the lab of Dr. David Fitzpatrick, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Ben Scholl has been working to understand why certain neurons respond to stimuli that don’t illicit the same kind of response in other neurons. These incredibly complicated neuronal networks are made up of spines, dendrites and synapses of varying shapes and sizes, and it was unclear how these factors played a role in neuronal selection. In order to solve this puzzle, Ben not only needed to observe and measure their size as they fired, he needed a way fully view their complex structure. There are several ways to do this, but each has limitations and each requires a highly specialized skill set. Luckily, Connon Thomas of MPFI’s Electron Microscopy core shared his curiosity and the two teamed up to help uncover how unique structural properties in the brain affect signals in the brain.

Together, Ben, Connon and Dr.  Kamasawa, Head of MPFI’s Imaging Center and Electron Microscopy Core Facility, came up with a plan to combine Light Microscopy with Electron Microscopy techniques in a way that took advantage of strengths of each method while minimizing their weaknesses. Connon clearly remembers the most exciting part of the project for him: “For me it’s when we created a 3D model from the electron microscopy images, which gives us very precise and high-resolution view of a neuron. Then we can pull up the light microscopy video next to it and see how it was firing in the brain—that’s really a ‘wow’ moment.”

This new workflow enabled the team to become the first to analyze not just one, but several cells with ultrastructural resolution. “Getting the first data was exciting for me,” Ben said. “After having so many discussions with the EM core facility, seeing how well technique worked was a great affirmation. I also enjoyed reconstructing the neurons from the electron microscopy images and getting to see the incredibly complex structure of the cortex.”

The next step was making sense of this massive amount of information, but that is where another one of Max Planck Florida’s advantages came into play. Melissa Ryan joined MPFI’s postbaccalaureate program in 2018 and after showing a talent for microscopy remained on for a second year to work in the EM core. The training and experience she received through the postbac training program combined with her natural talent and attention for detail tremendously helped the team and saved them critical amounts of time.

“I found it really interesting that, working on a collaborative CLEM paper, the perspectives of the scientists from each camp paralleled the type of data they collected. I think that these differences contribute to the success of this collaboration. The paper and my interactions with them were an education in the nuances of investigating form and function interactions in the brain,” said Melissa.

Collaboration at all levels of scientific training is part of MPFI’s core mission. It results in exceptional science, and drives forward ground-breaking discoveries like Ben’s, Connon’s and the entire EM core team.

“From my beginning here at MPFI, it’s been a great opportunity to grow professionally. It’s a very interesting situation where scientifically I have the freedom to pursue new directions that my findings open up,” Ben said. “If I come up with a new idea, or a new experiment or even a new collaborator, MPFI opens the doors to make these projects possible.”

The results of Dr. Ben Scholl, Connon Thomas, Dr. Naomi Kamasawa, Melissa Ryan, and Dr. David Fitzpatrick’s study are the focus of a new paper in the journal, Nature. Read more about this paper here. In addition, the novel technique developed by the team is the focus of a Microscopy and Microanalysis article, which can be found here.