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My sister is in 9th grade biology and her teacher avoided answering the question of how we actually study the inside of a cell. I haven't taken biology in a while but I'd like to give her an answer.

Can someone roughly summarize how we actually learn about what goes on inside a cell? Just mentioning a few of the most common or used techniques would be fine.

Note: I hope this isn't a bad question. It's a bit vague. But I didn't want to leave her without a decent answer.

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Techniques to look at whole cells are: Light microscopy (cells, large organelles), electron microscopy (detailed analysis of subcellular structures and even proteins) and confocal fluorescence miscroscopy (look at particular cellular planes, reconstruct 3D images).

And of course you can analyze the insides by Biochemistry by breaking the cell membranes and look at individual proteins and DNA/RNA by extraction and electrophoresis followed by Western / Northern / Southern blotting, or isolate organelles by centrifugation.

It is a broad question, and I just gave the most obvious examples of techniques (not anywhere near exhaustive). By googling the bold-out terms you may provide some details to your sis.

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Beyond the conventional methods listed by Chris Stronks, Berkley Labs have far advanced the state of the art in probing the internal structures of cells using x-ray tomography. See: http://ncxt.lbl.gov/ . The images obtained are absolutely incredible and allow researchers to probe the cell layer by layer and visually contrast specific organelles for study much in the same manner that organisms are examined using CT scanners.

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  • $\begingroup$ That was fantastic. Nothing can replace seeing it for yourself! $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Jan 21 '15 at 4:54
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One technique that I like is Immunofluorescence. You get images like this:

Immunoflourescence: The nuclei are stained blue (command centre of the cell), the cytoplasm green

The staining are caused by applying antibodies with an flourescent probe. The antibody 'sticks' to certain parts of the cell, & the probe produces the light patterns you see.

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