Cell Biology people, tools & techniques


The fact that you have clicked on this section indicates that you have an interest in people and probably in all livings things. All biologists would claim similar interests but cell and molecular biologists are particularly interested in how organisms work at the very basic level of life; the cell, the sub cellular parts and how molecules react and move to make a cell work.

Work in cell biology demands the knowledge and skills of people from different subject areas. Within a team or laboratory you might find scientists who are biochemists, chemists, immunologists, biophysicists and an increasing number of computer specialists as well as cell and molecular biologists.

Good scientists working in cell biology are multi-skilled astute observers with good inter-personal skills. They can think critically, creatively and laterally and use their imagination much as an artist does. They need to be persistent, patient and analytical and be prepared to challenge current and established thinking. They can give presentations to a group and can have a useful discussion over a cup of coffee or a ‘pint’.

People involved in cell biology have a concern for the well being of living things. They obtain intellectual and job satisfaction from finding out what makes living things live.

Work in cell biology is like surfing at the seaside. You get carried away on the crest of a wave and then drop when your ideas crash. Then what do you do? Like surfers you go out and try again! Although their actual work is often driven by the organisation paying them, deep down cell biologists are themselves driven by a curiosity about the nature of life.

Those who work in cell biology wish to prevent malfunction and disease in plants and animals and to improve the quality of life throughout life.

Many cell biologists feel humbled by the complexity and orderly beauty of the livings systems they work on. Perhaps as a result of this many of them tend to be humble, cautionary people, creative in their own way but not madly extrovert! But then of course there are always exceptions.

Many improvements in health are attributable to cell biologists and such has been the importance of their discoveries that quite a few of them have received Nobel Prizes for their work including Watson and Crick of DNA fame.


Almost every week there is some news linked to cell biology. Certainly the subject is developing at a very fast rate. Much of this is attributable to the development of tools and techniques that have enabled routine work to be speeded up so that processes that once took days now only takes hours or minutes.

New types of microscopes linked to computer imaging and enhancing equipment have been developed. In school, biology students will have used monocular and binocular optical microscopes.

In research laboratories there are inverted microscopes through which you can view the contents of a petri dish or culture bottle from underneath. There are also atomic force microscopes and the scanning electron microscopes (SEM) that produce marvellous 3D effect images.

New staining techniques produce ‘painted’ chromosomes and the very vivid images made by using fluorescent and antibody stains.

Very small samples of the hereditary material DNA can now be copied again and again very quickly using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). The DNA can then be separated and analysed using an electric current.

We are all familiar with the spin-drying facility in washing machines. This principle is used in laboratory centrifuges to separate cell components from liquid.

Increasingly molecular biologists are using computers to model molecules (now being called in silico as opposed to in vivo or in vitro), to find out how, for example, enzymes and substrates link and how antibodies ‘lock-on’ to cells. A special type of computer-linked spectrometer using a laser is being used to determine the mass of protein molecules.

Post genomic biology is producing masses of information about DNA and protein sequences and functions. This data in electronic form is being deposited in bio data banks in different parts of the world.

The collecting, handling and analysing of this data has given rise to the subject called bioinformatics. The matching of gene sequences and the analysis of protein binding sites is given the name computational biology.
New study areas in the post genomic era also include: (1) functional genomics – the high speed analysis of hundreds of genes at once; (2) structural genomics – the determination of the structure of the proteins encoded by a genome; (3) transcriptomics – how genes are turned on and off by transcripts of messenger RNA; (4) proteomics – protein presence and interaction within a cell and, (5) metabolomics – analysis of the small molecules within a cell. These are all exciting growth areas in the ‘new biology’.

There is enormous variety in the work in cell biology and different individuals will find their own particular area of fascination. But it is not all high tech!

One low-tech skill is especially useful; the ability to draw schemes and diagrams as an aid to exploring and expressing ideas. Sometimes these appear complex but, like a map, they contain shorthand conventional signs.


We all know how to make a cup of tea. Make a list of all the actions you perform to make a cup of tea using a teapot i.e. not just using a tea bag and a cup. Create a diagram of the total process putting your actions in numerical order. Your diagram does not have to be linear; it can be branching and/or have actions taken in parallel.

Next annotate your diagram explaining why the actions have been taken in the particular sequence you chose. When you next make a pot of tea, time each event and add this information to your diagram. You may have some surprises!