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Enabling Discovery from Imaging Data Requires a Different Kind of IT

Adam Marko
| January 12, 2021

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Researchers are gaining access to troves of rich data thanks to advancements in exciting imaging technologies such as Cryogenic Electron Microscopy (CryoEM) and Lattice Light Sheet Microscopy (LLS). These instruments bring with them the promise of novel insights into the biological world.

This changing landscape of research pipelines requires a data storage foundation that delivers high performance in a reliable, scalable and adaptable way. Forward-thinking pharmaceutical organizations are thus switching out traditional storage – scale out NAS systems – with parallel file systems. In doing so, the IT staff at these organizations are freeing themselves from administrative burden and limited performance, and moving towards becoming a partner in scientific discovery.

It’s a generational shift. For more than a decade, the primary storage infrastructure consumer in pharma has been next-generation sequencing (NGS). These infrastructure designs, while large and certainly expensive, met genomics needs with commodity CPUs and mid-range performance file systems. But they do not meet the current and future analysis requirements of image analysis in the life sciences.

This is where parallel file systems enter the picture, so to speak. Unlike traditional NAS file systems, parallel systems allow researchers to perform a wide range of analysis against much larger datasets (like images plus genomics).

And that is essential for CryoEM and LLS. CryoEM is a technique that uses electron microscopy to image cryogenically frozen molecules. Unlike the older technique of X-ray crystallography, CryoEM can image larger complexes and preserve the sample better. In use for about four decades in the research space, CryoEM has expanded into pharma research.  In fact, it has been used during the COVID pandemic to determine molecular structures of antibodies and the COVID-19 virus (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7340259/).

Rhinovirus atomic structure as determined by CryoEM. Structures of this resolution are now produced by CryoEM at a greater rate than ever before.
Image Source: PNAS

In contrast LLS is high resolution microscopy that allows long timescale imaging of dynamic biological processes in 3D. LLS is unique among microscopy techniques in that it results in minimal damage to the sample, meaning living organisms can be imaged in real time. With other technologies, the sample is damaged, and long videos cannot be recorded.

6 Lattice light-sheet examples. As light planes move through the specimen, 3D images are generated.
Image Source: CBMF Harvard Medical School

CryoEM has already shown promise in the pharma space, and the potential for LLS is growing. With the help of parallel storage infrastructures, that potential is far more likely to be met.