“Seeing is Believing” - the title of the recent EMBO|EMBL Symposium that took place at EMBL in Heidelberg from 4 – 7 October 2017 is a clear statement that images are required to understand dynamic processes and the structural organisation of life. “Seeing” and “Believing” - this combination of words, however, also immediately triggers discussions and thoughts. What can we infer from what we see? Can or should we “believe” in images? What is an artifact and what is “real”? The conference was dedicated to exploring these questions further, as well as looking at the future of imaging and where the field is heading.

Limitations of our understanding

Talks and posters at the conference demonstrated that our understanding is limited by available imaging tools and biological models. In her talk, Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz elucidated that only new super-resolution imaging modalities made it possible to discover that structures which appeared to be sheets (peripheral ER sheets) are in fact a network of densely clustered individual tubules. In another contribution, Gaudenz Danuser and Reto Fiolka presented how cell behavior differs in 2D cultures compared to 3D cultures, and that anisotropic image resolution such as that provided by confocal microscopes can lead to misinterpretation of signal intensities [2]. Many other such examples were presented and discussed, emphasising that progress in imaging technologies and methodological approaches is required to discover new biology and interpret observations correctly.

An interdisciplinary setting

Technological and methodological progress, however, also requires insight into biology. The fanciest technology does not help if it is optimised for an irrelevant parameter. Therefore, close collaboration of imaging innovators and biologists is needed. This was also reflected in the talks and posters. To name a few, Ron Germain presented an enhanced clearing technique for deep tissue imaging to reveal fundamental principles of organ formation [3], 3D FIBSEM developed by Harald Hess provided the necessary level of detail for full neuronal circuit reconstruction, Peter Friedl established microendoscopy to look deep into tissues, Florian Jug presented machine learning tools to understand images, Ann-Shyn Chiang combined various imaging modalities to establish a whole fly (neuronal) connectome, Ralf Jungmann presented a labeling technique (DNA-PAINT) to image over 100 distinct markers in one sample. All these talks were embedded into sessions as diverse as super-resolution/single-molecule microscopy, imaging across scales, image analysis, new biology discovered by imaging, correlative imaging, and probes and biosensors.

Whilst these fields are “diverse”, they are all necessary and act together to achieve scientific progress. This progress is also facilitated by companies that provide easy to use instruments, software tools and services for non-specialists. Many such companies in the field of imaging and image analysis also participated at the conference and provided the opportunity for hands-on introductions to their latest products.

Fruitful discussions

Bringing together such diverse experts from science and industry provided the perfect platform for discussions on how to successfully combine technology and biology. Such discussions took place until late in the evening at EMBL and at the conference dinner at Heidelberg Castle.

Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz formulated the importance of them nicely [4]: “It is very hard from just reading the literature to identify important biological areas that deserve attention. Ideas for real breakthroughs and new concepts often come from discussions among scientists at meetings.” “Seeing is Believing” was a prime example of such a meeting. One significant result of these discussions included a change of paradigm: In two years, “Seeing is Believing” will most likely be renamed “Seeing is Understanding” – reflecting the need to not only look at images, but also be able to interpret and understand them.

Stephan Daetwyler, Event Reporter

See also Seeing is Believing Blog: https://seeingbelievingweb.wordpress.com/


[1] https://www.embo-embl-symposia.org/symposia/2017/EES17-08/

[2] https://seeingbelievingweb.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/the-third-dimension-really-matters-also-in-cell-biology/

[3] https://seeingbelievingweb.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/the-need-for-imaging-to-understand-the-immune-system/

[4] https://seeingbelievingweb.wordpress.com/2017/10/09/conference-interview-with-jennifer-lippincott-schwartz/