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The Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center holds second annual symposium

Stephen Smith

Stephen Smith, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology of the Stanford University School of Medicine

Much of the public frustration with the slow progress of science may come from our textbooks, which illustrate most ideas as simple cartoons. For example, the synapse of a neuron, where one neuron passes a signal to another, is usually shown as a small bulb which releases tiny bubbles (called vesicles) that float across a channel to dock in another small bulb. How hard can it be to cure a disease, if all it takes is knowing that a few bubbles cross between two bulbs?

The reality is a level of complexity that astonishes even professional scientists, as shown during the Salk's recent Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center's (WABC) Second Annual Symposium. "It was the best conference I've been to in the last year, in terms of the new information I learned," says Terry Sejnowski, Salk's Francis Crick chair.

Organized by Salk faculty members Martin Hetzer and Axel Nimmerjahn and Biophotonics Core Facility Director James Fitzpatrick, the symposium brought together an all-star scientific line-up of specialists in topics ranging from the molecular mechanisms of gene expression to the effect of neural vasculature on microstrokes. "What they all have in common is the desire to understand the three-dimensional architecture of single molecules and cellular systems and how it relates to biological function," says Hetzer, WABC's faculty director and the Jesse and Caryl Philips Foundation Chair.

Consider that textbook cartoon of a neuron. According to symposium speaker Stephen Smith of Stanford University, it's now known many vesicles dock at places other than synapses. Additionally, the vesicles themselves, which appear in the flat gray-scale of older electron micrographs to be bubbles of just one substance, have been revealed by newer techniques to be pin cushion-like structures of hundreds of proteins.

"A piece of cerebral cortex the size of a large grain of sand may contain several billion synapses," says Sejnowski. "It's a multi-dimensional problem that's beyond what a human can calculate." His own talk described his lab's use of computer simulations to model the subcellular architecture and physiology of neurons and their synapses, as well as bacteria.

With its tour de force demonstrations of the insights gained from advanced scientific methods, the symposium reinforced the message of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative to push forward with new tools and techniques, says Sejnowski, an advisor to the initiative.

Says Fitzpatrick, "At whatever scale you're working on, the complexity of biological systems is nearly overwhelming. Yet we firmly believe that with the right tools, it's not intractable."