Imaging Innovation Initiative


Seeing the Invisible: Integrating Imaging, Computation, and Biology at the Marine Biological Laboratory

Making the invisible visible is a dream that dates back centuries, since the very first glimpses of cellular life in the late 17th century.  Discovering invisible worlds that no one knew existed, in fact, has always been the raison d’etre for biological discovery at the MBL – whether exploring the rich diversity of life in oceans and coastal marshes or uncovering the molecular details of intracellular life in a variety of cells from diverse organisms.  What integrates all such projects is the need for spatial awareness of how the inner and outer life of cells and organisms are connected to each other, thus enabling scientists to see the invisible and thus gain a visual awareness of concepts and ideas that would otherwise always remain inferential or theoretical.

The MBL has long been at the forefront of developing new approaches in imaging and applying those methods to biological problems and questions.  In partnership with a number of commercial vendors and developers, this special capacity has played a large role in MBL’s history, attracting outstanding scientists and students with its combination of imaging technology, computational expertise, courses, and cutting-edge biology.

To address new biological questions and tackle the field’s problem of insurmountable data the MBL is establishing a Center for Imaging Innovation and Computation for research and training in next-generation microscopy and computational image analysis. Recent advances in light microscopy are creating unprecedented opportunities for understanding living systems. Fluorescent tagging of endogenous genes, high-sensitivity detectors, super-resolution approaches, and optogenics all provide powerful new tools for understanding cell behavior in healthy and disease states, and new methods are being continually developed. In addition, computational analysis is becoming increasingly important in the new “big data” era of imaging. The MBL applies these approaches distinctively to the study of cellular life, from microbes to newly discovered marine model organisms in a range of ecosystems.

Click here to learn more about the MBL’s Imaging Innovation Initiative.

Recent advancement: Lillie Laboratory renovation

In June 2018 Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a $473 million Massachusetts Life Sciences Bond Bill containing $10 million earmarked by the Legislature for an Imaging Innovation at the MBL. The capital funds, which Governor Baker will decide how to invest over five years, would enable capital improvements to the Lillie Laboratory—the home for MBL’s Center for Imaging Innovation and Computation.

NSF Workshop: Enabling biological discovery through innovations in imaging and computation

The Marine Biological Laboratory received funding from the National Science Foundation to host a workshop on “Enabling biological discovery through innovations in imaging and computation.” The workshop was held at the MBL on November 26-28, 2018 for more than 70 participants including leaders in biology, instrument development, computation and trainees, as well as representatives from industry and other NGO organizations.

The purpose of the workshop was to brainstorm innovative and integrated approaches that create a positive feedback loop between instrument developers, computational experts, and biologists to transform the way technologies are developed and deployed. View more information on the workshop schedule, organizers, keynote speakers, and participant list here.

A white paper inspired by the workshop was published in the August 2019 issue of Nature Methods. This commentary calls for a network of national imaging centers that provide collaborative, interdisciplinary spaces needed for the development, application, and teaching of advanced biological imaging techniques.

A follow-up meeting with a variety of funding stakeholders will be scheduled in the spring of 2020. Look for an announcement at Ideas and helpful comments for the meeting may be sent to

In March 2019, the MBL received a Chan Zuckerberg Imaging Award to fund a staff imaging scientist, Abhishek Kumar, who is a central collaborator in the emerging Imaging Innovation Initiative.

For questions on MBL’s Imaging Innovation Initiative please contact Alison Crawford, Chief of Staff at

MBL’s Imaging Steering Committee


Amy Gladfelter, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; MBL Whitman Center Scientist; MBL Fellow
Patrick La Riviere, University of Chicago; MBL Whitman Center Scientist; MBL Fellow

Committee Members:

Sara Abrahmsson, University of California Santa Cruz
Zoe Cardon, Marine Biological Laboratory
Ibrahim Cisse, MIT
Daniel Colòn-Ramos, Yale School of Medicine
Daniel Fletcher, UC Berkeley
Scott Fraser, University of Southern California
Amy Gladfelter*, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Bobby Kasthuri, University of Chicago
Louis Kerr, Marine Biological Laboratory
Paul Kulesa, Stowers Institute for Medical Research
Abhishek Kumar, MBL
Patrick La Rivière*, University of Chicago
Paul Maddox, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Rudolf Oldenbourg, Marine Biological Laboratory
Hari Shroff, National Institutes of Health
Heidi Sosik, WHOI
Clare Waterman, National Institutes of Health

Image credits, top of page (left to right):
Torsten Wittmann; Tessa Montague/MBL Embryology Course; David Gold, Lynn Kee, Meghan Morrissey/MBL Embryology Course; Phuong Nguyen; Michael Shribak; Amy Gladfelter, Rudolf Oldenbourg