Many modern scientific and technological discoveries are predicated on humanity’s ability to control and visualize things in the microscopic scale. This is accomplished through microscopy, the technical field of using microscopes to enable the visualization of objects that cannot be seen by unaided human vision. This field has a myriad of medical, scientific, and engineering applications, the most known of which perhaps is its importance in diagnostic and life science instrumentation.
Focusing a microscope is typically achieved through minute adjustments on the position of the instrument’s optics and the specimen being observed. Usually, this is performed using a precision-engineered Z focusing stage, in which either the sample or the instrument’s optical component is moved along the optical axis. This way, the imaging can be refined until the object is brought into perfect focus.
But creating groundbreaking microscopy technologies involves so much more than proper focusing and traditional optics. In the case of the inventions featured below, extraordinary creativity and understanding of advanced imaging techniques were the keystones upon which the engineers and scientists rested their researches.
Lattice Light-Sheet Microscopy
In October 2014, a Nobel Prize-winning engineer and his team announced in Sciencemagazine that they have developed a new microscope that employsa technique they call lattice light-sheetmicroscopy.This process generates three-dimensional (3D) images of biological specimens and captures the changes they undergo in space over time.
The microscope was developed “using ultrathin light sheets derived from two-dimensional (2D) optical lattices, which are scanned plane-by-plane through the specimen to generate a 3D image.” What this does is that it essentially allows the user not only to capture the minute physical structures of a biological specimen but also to record the quick movements that it does or undergoes at a molecular level. In short,it creates very clear 3D videos of very small things. For instance, the microscope has the ability to capture high-resolution, fluorescent videos of actual cells dividing or ofdifferent types of cells interacting with one another.
In the past, observing the rapidly evolving physiologies of biological samples often meantthat tradeoffs in terms of resolution, speed, and phototoxicity were unavoidable. An instrument that works in high resolution tend to be slower, and the huge amount of light radiation they use often kill living cells. With lattice light-sheet microscopy, the light beam used is divided into seven lattices, distributing the energy and reducing phototoxicity in the process.
“The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems,” the researchers noted in their paper.
Scanning Helium Microscopy
More recently, Australian scientists from the University of Newcastle announced that they have produced a prototype of a helium microscope at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in the United Kingdom.The very first photos they have taken, published in the journal Nature in January 2016, showed magnified images of a honey bee’s wing.
The new microscopy technology is referred to asscanning helium microscopy. Unlike conventional microscopesthat use light or electrons, this type of microscope uses helium. It is advantageous because delicate samples like biological specimens and certain components of polymer electronics often suffer damage under the energetic beams produced by traditional microscopes. Since scanning helium microscopy uses neutral helium beam, which is chemically, electrically, and magnetically inert, such delicate materials can be observed without suffering degradation.
The technique offers promising applications for a gamut of fields, from microbiology and solar cell technology to environmental and even military research. Just imagine the amazing medical and pharmacological advancements that can be brought about by the ability to observe microorganisms in their most natural state possible.
Microscopy is an amazing field, one that can have significant implications in our daily lives. And with inventions like lattice light-sheet microscopy and scanning helium microscopy, we can now observe the world of the very small in ways never before possible.