He turns color into a precision tool to untangle the ‘dance of molecules’

A researcher at Harvard told Luke Lavis his dyes were so bright, scientists were crying at the microscope. "At that point, we realized that we might actually have something here,"…

ASHBURN, Va. — Luke Lavis paints the insides of cells, but he’s not an artist, he’s a color chemist.

As head of molecular tools and imaging at Janelia Research Campus, Lavis is responsible for helping to bring varicolored detail to the hectic, colorless tangle of biological systems.

During a recent interview in his lab, he talked about how the colored dyes his team creates could be useful for drug discovery, why he loves giving them away for free, and how color can reveal life’s spark. This interview has been edited for clarity.

If you look at color in marketing and it uses a bright palette, it’s meant to grab your attention. How is that same palette useful to science and how does it help us see in a different way?

One of the

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