Shinya Inoué, pioneer in microscopy and imaging live cells, 1921-2019

Longtime MBL scientist remembered as innovative leader and mentor

Shinya Inoué, an extraordinary innovator in microscopy and live-cell imaging, died Sept. 30 in Falmouth, Massachusetts at age 98.

A pioneering scientific leader and mentor for more than half a century at the University of Chicago-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory, Inoué introduced the era of live-cell imaging by using polarized light microscopy to explore the intricacies of cellular structure and dynamics.

Inoue’s dual careers as a microscopist and cell biophysicist were elegantly complementary: Each refinement of his hand-built microscopes led to a clearer understanding of fundamental life processes, including cell division, fertilization and early embryonic development. Inoué was also the co-inventor of video microscopy, a revolutionary advance that ushered in the modern era of imaging.

“We have a lost a giant in cell biology and a wonderful human being,” said colleague Ron Vale of the University of California, San Francisco. “Shinya was the pioneer in studying the dynamics of living cells by microscopy, an approach that is widespread today. He developed many new methods in microscopy, and his observations led to many unique insights in the working of cells. Shinya left behind a lasting legacy of contributions in cell biology. He will be widely missed.”

Inoué’s far-reaching impact at the Marine Biological Laboratory began in the 1950s when he was a visiting investigator from Princeton University and continued after he joined the lab as a senior scientist in 1982. In his time in Woods Hole, he founded an international, collaborative center for innovation in light microscopy and pioneered a course format, now standard in the field, that provides a fertile ground for beneficial interactions between the microscopy industry and the academic research community.

“For the last 30 years, I had the great fortune to work with Shinya Inoué, who was an exacting and demanding, yet patient and always generous mentor, who taught by example, combining a passion both for creating tools and applying them to reveal the mysteries of life,” said MBL senior scientist Rudolf Oldenbourg. “Inoué not only was an outstanding scientist, but he is universally respected for his kind and thoughtful ways, for his humanity, and his attention to personal relationships.”

The son of a Japanese diplomat, Inoué was born in 1921 in London, England. His distinguished career began in the 1940s at Tokyo University, where as an undergraduate he studied with cell biologist and MBL summer investigator Katsuma Dan. Dan presented Inoué with a challenge: Build a microscope that will allow us to see the mitotic spindle—the transient structure that moves chromosomes in the dividing cell—in a living sea-urchin egg. While scientists had seen them in dissected cells, they had never been able to watch it happen live. Inoué eventually built his first polarized light microscope out of various found parts—including a discarded machine-gun base and a tin tea can—in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II.

Inoué entered Princeton University in 1948 and improved his polarized light microscope (now nicknamed the “Shinya Scope”). In 1951 he used it to prove the universal existence of the spindle fibers, the dynamic protein filaments that move chromosomes in the dividing cell. Inoué announced this landmark discovery in the MBL’s Lillie Auditorium, where he premiered a movie of dividing cells that clearly showed the action of the spindle fibers in the mitotic spindle. It was the first major accomplishment in a career devoted to delving into the mysteries of living cells.

Shortly after joining the MBL in 1982, Inoué and Robert and Nina Allen independently discovered at the MBL that using a video camera to record images from a microscope brought great gains in image clarity. Inoué combined video microscopy with computer-assisted contrast enhancement, allowing one to see fine details of cells that had never been seen before. It was the birth of the electronic era in microscopy.

Over five decades, Inoué built seven generations of his Shinya Scope, with technical improvements each time, and in the late 1990s he invented the centrifuge polarizing microscope. Inoué held four U.S. patents for his microscopes and authored more than 100 scientific papers, many of which are collected in The Collected Works of Shinya Inoue: Microscopes, Living Cells, and Dynamic Molecules (2008) He also authored the book Video Microscopy (1986).

Inoué was named a Distinguished Scientist at MBL, the laboratory’s highest honor, in 1986. Inoué was the recipient of numerous other awards and honors. They include the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon Award from the Government of Japan; the International Prize for Biology from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Microscopy Society of America; and the E.B. Wilson Award from the American Society for Cell Biology.

He is survived by his wife, Sylvia (McCandless) Inoué, five children, six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Marine Biological Laboratory website.