A grand challenge in biology is to understand the cellular and molecular basis of tissue and organ level function in mammals. The ultimate goals of such efforts are to explain how organs arise in development from the coordinated actions of their constituent cells and to determine how molecularly regulated changes in cell behavior alter the structure and function of organs during disease processes. Two major barriers stand in the way of achieving these goals: the relative inaccessibility of cellular processes in mammals and the daunting complexity of the signaling environment inside an intact organ in vivo. To overcome these barriers, we have developed a suite of tissue isolation, three dimensional (3D) culture, genetic manipulation, nanobiomaterials, imaging, and molecular analysis techniques to enable the real-time study of cell biology within intact tissues in physiologically relevant 3D environments. This manuscript introduces the rationale for 3D culture, reviews challenges to optical imaging in these cultures, and identifies current limitations in the analysis of complex experimental designs that could be overcome with improved imaging, imaging analysis, and automated classification of the results of experimental interventions.