From her laboratory in the far western reaches of Montana, Elizabeth Fischer is trying to help people see what they’re up against in COVID-19.
Over the past three decades, Fischer, 58, and her team at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the National Institutes of Health, have captured and created some of the more dramatic images of the world’s most dangerous pathogens.
“I like to get images out there to try to convey that this is an entity, to try to demystify it, so this is something more tangible for people,” Fischer, one of the country’s leading electron microscopists, told Kaiser Health News.
Now, as her renderings of the coronavirus flash across screens worldwide, she said: “You often hear people call it the invisible enemy. It’s trying to put that face out there.”
Working in one of the nation’s 13 labs equipped to safely handle the most dangerous pathogens, Fischer and her team visualize the world’s deadliest plagues from Ebola to HIV, salmonella to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The breathtaking images allow people to see a virus as an elaborate biological structure with weaknesses that can be exploited, yielding clues for researchers about how to develop treatments and vaccines.
Some of the more stunning images of the coronavirus—about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair—have come from Fischer’s microscope.
One is her photograph of viral particles being released from a dying cell infected with the virus. The small, blue spheres emerging from the surface are the virus particles themselves. (The images produced by the electron microscopes are black-and-white, so visual artists colorize the image to help identify different parts of the cell.)
“This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins wrote. “Just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.”