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20th anniversary of Bristol University's bioimaging facility

The first two imaging facility confocal microscopes, imaginatively named Confocal 1 (top) and Confocal 2 (bottom). These Leica NT systems were our ‘workhorses’ for many years.

29 April 2016

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Bristol University’s bioimaging facility, which seems a good opportunity to reflect on its story so far and to indulge in a bit of nostalgia.

The MRC Cell Imaging Facility, as it was known for 11 years, was funded by an MRC Infrastructure Award to Professors Dick Denton, Jonathan Ashmore, Graham Collingridge, Graeme Henderson and Chris Paraskeva following an application process which started early in 1994. The original application outlined a range of research projects from the applicants and a select group of academics, including the likes of George Banting, Jeremy Tavaré, Jeremy Henley, Andrew Halestrap, George Schofield and Guy Rutter, who would all become important figures in the development of the Facility.

Following the award of £800K by the MRC in September 1995, George Schofield was appointed as the Facility’s first director to guide its early development. Work soon began to refurbish laboratories (C29 and C33 - after removal of aging electron microscopes), to procure confocal microscopes and recruit someone to run the new facility. Two Leica TCS NT confocal microscopes were installed in April 1996 along with two upgraded widefield microscopes.  Mark Jepson took up the post of manager of the new facility on 1st May and researchers soon started using the microscopes.  

Our first confocal users in the summer of ’96 included the Banting and Tavaré groups, with both George and Jeremy featuring as hands-on users at the time, along with Sabine Kupzig, Milena Girotti, Liz Roquemore, Steve Dobson and Matt Griffiths. Ash Toye also appears on the list of first users, then at an early stage of his research career in Owen Jones’ group. 

Early in 1997, Alan Leard joined the Facility as a technician and helped support rapid growth in use over the next few years. Following George Schofield’s retirement, Jeremy Tavaré took over the role of Facility director and oversaw its first phase of expansion, with two more MRC-funded confocal microscopes arriving in 1999 and 2003 to underpin the exponential growth in dynamic cell biology at that time.

Early in the its second decade the Facility significantly expanded thanks to funding from the Wolfson Foundation and the University in 2007 which established the electron microscopy suite headed by Paul Verkade and brought in new light microscopy techniques in the form of TIRF and spinning disk systems.

Over the past few years the rebranded Wolfson Bioimaging Facility continued to grow and diversify with the addition of new confocal and widefield microscopes, multiphoton, super-resolution and FLIM systems, and specialised CLEM equipment thanks to funding from research councils and substantial inward investment. The Facility and its dedicated staff have grown to support a very broad range of the University’s research across biomedical and physical sciences, with over 350 researchers currently using our microscopes.

Our 20th anniversary year has already seen the opening of the Wolfson Foundation-funded Phase II laboratories to house several of our newer microscopes and the further expansion of our support team with the arrival of Stephen Cross, who is enabling a major advance in our ability to support quantitative microscopy through advanced image processing and analysis.

Looking back, it should be emphasised that the concept of shared light microscopy facilities was quite novel when the original application was made in 1994. It is thanks to the forward thinking of Dick Denton and colleagues that researchers in Bristol were well-placed to exploit emerging fluorescence techniques such as the use of GFP which revolutionised cell biology in the late 1990s. The Facility’s microscopes provided data for two papers using GFP constructs as early as 1996, including the first description of a GFP-tagged membrane protein, and helped put Bristol at the forefront of dynamic cell biology. The initial investment laid the foundations for subsequent evolution of the Facility supported by the senior academics (Jeremy Tavaré, Paul Martin and David Stephens) who have taken on leadership roles to nurture the Facility and coordinate funding bids. Along with the continued support from the University and many users this has enabled the Facility to underpin additional research areas that have now become major components of the imaging we support, including live imaging of model organisms, the rejuvenation of electron microscopy, and interdisciplinary research in nanomaterials and synthetic biology.

In its 20th year, the Facility is continuing to thrive and is now firmly established as a leading microscopy facility. Looking forward we anticipate further growth in the use of emerging advanced imaging techniques and the optimisation of quantitative microscopy.       

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