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Imaging the cytoskeleton – re-defining a biological entity with fluorescent antibodies

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This paper traces a substantial visual end epistemic change in cell biology research in the early 1970s, initiated by the adoption of fluorescence microscopy, using antibodies for labelling proteins, from diagnostic research on viral and bacterial pathogens. With the first paper applying this method to cytoskeleton research, published 1974 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA , a new kind of visual evidence got established in a field, which until then was dominated by electron microscopy as the most important imaging technique. As I will show, the application and establishment of fluorescence microscopy not only re-defined the cytoskeleton as a biological entity of similar importance as other already well-described organelles like the nucleus, the Golgi apparatus or the endoplasmic reticulum. It furthermore facilitated a new iconography of the cell and a significant epistemic change: it was now possible to stain proteins specifically in fixed cells, allowing the visualization of the molecular architecture of various cell components in situ. Based on manuscripts, published articles and textbooks, editorial archives, papers of the American Society for Cell Biology, as well as interviews with researchers, technology developers and editors, I aim to reconstruct and understand how a new kind of image could be established as central evidence for findings and hypotheses and how the associated visual knowledge shaped the field of cell biology.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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