The EMBL Imaging Centre – EMBL’s new service facility enables users to image across scales

EMBL fuels scientific progress by making cutting-edge imaging technologies accessible to scientists worldwide, and providing them with training and tailored project support at the EMBL headquarters in Heidelberg.
The EMBL Imaging Centre – EMBL’s new service facility enables users to image across scales

This post was co-written by Stephanie Alexander (Research and Service Coordinator, EMBL Imaging Centre), Verena Viarisio (Outreach and Local Communications Manager, EMBL) and Jan Ellenberg (Head, EMBL Imaging Centre).

Newly developed imaging technologies enable us to directly visualise the molecular machinery of life in situ for the very first time. Therefore, advanced microscopy has become a central technology for the life sciences, leading to discoveries of previously hidden processes and to a more detailed understanding of health and disease. However, not all scientists have access to the latest imaging technologies, as the devices are expensive, their set-up is complex, and both correct use and maintenance require specialist expertise.

The EMBL Imaging Centre (EMBL IC) is the newest addition to the EMBL headquarters in Heidelberg. The service facility makes cutting-edge imaging technologies accessible to scientists from all around the world, from academia and industry. The portfolio of the EMBL IC includes high- and super-resolution electron microscopy (EM) and light microscopy (LM) technologies, correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM) approaches, as well as technologies not yet commercially available. Complementing the open access, expert staff train users with different levels of expertise and provide tailored project support during the full experimental cycle: from sample preparation to image data analysis. In order to make new technologies available to an even broader scientific community as quickly as possible, EMBL works in an open innovation concept with its corporate partners to develop technologies in close collaboration between industry and academia.

Image credit: Kinga Lubowiecka / EMBL

Building the EMBL Imaging Centre: beauty meets functionality

Over the past 10 years, EMBL groups that developed new light microscopes for super-resolution and organismal imaging were increasingly approached with requests by researchers who wanted to use the freshly minted technologies. At the same time, EMBL saw a tremendous need across Europe for the cryo-EM services and workflows that were developed in-house to tackle structural biology inside cells. Dr Jan Ellenberg, Head of Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit and Dr Christoph Müller, Head of Structural and Computational Biology Unit, acted on this by pitching for a service centre to address both of these needs and that is based on EMBL’s long-standing expertise in LM and EM: the idea for the EMBL Imaging Centre was born.

Once funding was secured, the winners of an architectural competition, Gerstner and Hofmeister architects in Heidelberg, set out at the end of 2018 to construct the EMBL IC as a friendly and open space hosting the most sensitive imaging technologies and providing room for scientific exchange and training. The heart of the building is the two-floor-spanning Cryo Hall that shields the sensitive cryo-electron microscopes from environmental disturbances. The hall sits on a solid concrete slab of 900 m2, more than a meter thick and supported by 25 columns reaching up to four meter deep into the ground. This design, combined with further highest-level climate control technologies, guarantees optimal conditions for imaging in highest resolution and accuracy. Complemented by sample preparation laboratories, open office working spaces, a lecture hall, and operated by a team of enthusiastic experts, the EMBL IC is a one-stop-shop for all imaging needs. Additionally, a permanent exhibition within the building will invite the public to get to know ‘The World of Molecular Biology’.

In December 2021, after only two and a half years of building works and after a short pilot user phase, the EMBL Imaging Centre opened its doors to users across Europe and beyond. Its staff and leadership, Dr Jan Ellenberg and Dr Christoph Mülller – EMBL IC Head and Deputy-Head – are looking forward to inaugurate the service centre with the first scientific symposium in May and an official opening event in June 2022. 

Two teams provide solutions to all imaging needs

Two teams offer user support in the EMBL IC: the LM Team headed by Dr Timo Zimmermann and the EM Team headed by Dr Simone Mattei. Specialists in each team work hand-in-hand and across teams to support users from academia and industry. The teams’ application experts supervise the handling of the microscopes and guide users through each step of the imaging process. Engineers constantly improve and tailor the microscopes to stay at the forefront of technology and adapt them to users’ specific needs. Image analysis experts develop new workflows to support image data processing. And a dedicated service manager supports users in all aspects of their service needs, including consultation ahead of their visit, and advice on the easiest routes to obtain funding, especially for transnational access.

Acantharia. This image shows cryo-confocal imaging of plunge-frozen plankton Acantharia processed for electron microscopy. Acantharia are marine skeleton-bearing planktonic protists that form a monophyletic taxon among radiolarians within the super-group Rhizaria. Green: autofluorescence of host, red: chlorophyll of symbionts (microalgae). Image credit: Anna Steyer / EMBL, Sample courtesy: Charlotte le Kieffre and Johan Decelle / CEA Grenoble – Cell and Plant Physiology Laboratory.

Training to share expertise across Europe

Training is one of EMBL’s core missions. The EMBL IC was founded not only to provide open access to imaging technologies but also to extend knowledge about the handling of these technologies and the related workflows within the scientific community. The EMBL IC training programme is based on three pillars. First, the extension of EMBL’s outstanding existing course and conference programme in the area of imaging technologies, with dedicated expert courses and regular user meetings to bring together the imaging community. Second, job shadowing targets fellow imaging service facility staff from all around the world. Through these training multipliers, we are helping more researchers use the newest imaging technologies and workflows. Third, one-on-one user training is associated with the project-related visit to the EMBL IC and is adjusted to every user’s and every project’s needs. More information about the EMBL Imaging Centre training programme for users and fellow service centre staff can be found here.

Open innovation concept benefits the scientific community

Open access and information sharing for the benefit of the scientific community are fundamental to EMBL. In order for the community to benefit from new imaging technology development as widely as possible, EMBL builds on decades of experience in collaborating with industrial partners in the area of imaging technology development. The EMBL IC now intensifies the collaboration with industry in a new open innovation concept. In the EMBL IC, research and development of new technologies is done in close collaboration between academic and company developers. With newest tools and workflows from academia and industry at hand, users of the EMBL IC will be able to test new technologies for applications in their research much earlier and companies can feed these experiences back into their technology development, to make sure new products deliver what users need to accomplish their research goals.

Join us at the EMBL Imaging Centre!

The EMBL Imaging Centre invites European and international researchers to submit their project proposals. Access is possible via imaging infrastructures including Instruct-ERIC or Euro-BioImaging ERIC, EU access programmes like iNEXT-Discovery, individual fellowships to young scientists or via direct application to EMBL. The EMBL IC Service Team is the first point of contact (ic-contact@embl.de) and is happy to advise you on access routes, and to consult with you on the imaging technology options for your project. To give fair access to all users, your proposals will be quickly evaluated by independent external experts in the imaging technologies offered at the EMBL Imaging Centre.

 “After a very successful pilot phase in 2021 we are extending our portfolio and are looking forward to supporting as many projects as possible from across Europe and beyond in 2022,” says Dr Jan Ellenberg, Head of EMBL Imaging Centre. “Do get in touch with our very supportive team if you are interested in our cutting-edge imaging services. They will be happy to help and support you, provide technical advice and tailored project support as well as assist you with choosing the easiest route to obtain access funding for your project.”

Full information on contact details, services and technologies available, fees, remote and on-site project support, access routes and guidelines are available on the EMBL Imaging Centre homepage.


Top image of post: by Isabel Romero Calvo/EMBL