Microscope could 'solve the cause of viruses'

Mar 01, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of Manchester scientists have produced the world’s most powerful optical microscope, which could help understand the causes of many viruses and diseases.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the team have created a microscope which shatters the record for the smallest object the eye can see, beating the diffraction limit of light.

Previously, the standard optical can only see items around one micrometre – 0.001 millimetres – clearly.

But now, by combining an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere, dubbed the 'microsphere nanoscope', the Manchester researchers can see 20 times smaller – 50 nanometres (5 x 10-8m) – under normal lights. This is beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy.

This hugely-increased capacity means the scientists, led by Professor Lin Li and Dr Zengbo Wang, could potentially examine the inside of human cells, and examine live viruses for the first time to potentially see what causes them.

The existing microscopes which have the capacity to examine tiny items – electron microscopes – can only see the surface of a cell rather than examining its structure and there is no tool to see a live virus visually.

The scientists, from the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, now believe they can use the microscope to detect far smaller images in the future. The new method has no theoretical limit in the size of feature that can be seen.

The new nano-imaging system is based on capturing optical, near-field virtual images, which are free from optical diffraction, and amplifying them using a microsphere, a tiny spherical particle which is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.

Professor Li, who initiated and led the research in collaboration with academics at the National University and Data Storage Institute of Singapore, believes their research could prove to be an important development.

He said: "This is a world record in terms of how small an optical microscope can go by direct imaging under a light source covering the whole range of optical spectrum.

"Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometres, we believe that is just the start and we will be able to see far smaller items.

"Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see.

"The common way of seeing tiny items presently is with an electron microscope, and even then you cannot see inside a cell – only the outside. Optical fluoresce microscopes can see inside the cells indirectly by dying them, but these dyes cannot penetrate viruses.

"Seeing inside a cell directly without dying and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied and allow us to examine closely viruses and biomedicine for the first time."

Among other tiny objects the scientists will be able to examine are anodized aluminum oxide nano-structures, and nano-patterns on Blue-Ray CVC disks, not previously visible with an .

Explore further: Researchers create 3-D stereoscopic color prints with nanopixels

More information: Optical virtual imaging at 50 nm lateral resolution with a white light nanoscope, by Zengbo Wang: Nature Communications (2011)

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User comments : 7

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gvgoebel
4.7 / 5 (3) Mar 01, 2011
"Causes viruses"? What does THAT mean?

I think the researcher was much more articulate in his description: "Seeing inside a cell directly without dying and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied and allow us to examine closely viruses and biomedicine for the first time."
barakn
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2011
"Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see."

Oh, really.
Caliban
4 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2011
Hyperbole aside -this is really a breakthrough. Direct observation is often the only way to go, and, as in the example cited -we'll finally be able to directly observe very small structures inside cells, for instance.

Fantastic!

gwrede
4 / 5 (3) Mar 02, 2011
"Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see."
Well! So next week we'll see pictures of gluons, the Higgs particle, and suspended photons.

I doubt that professor Li would ever say such a thing.
JamesThomas
4.5 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2011
This is a very significant breakthrough that will open whole new vistas in microscopy.

Congratulations to University of Manchester!
FastEddy
not rated yet Mar 02, 2011
Caliban: "... Direct observation is often the only way to go, and, as in the example cited ..."

Yes, of course! Direct, non-intrusive, observation at the "sub cellular" level does open up a possibility of a better understanding viral action and thus this is a significant breakthrough.

(Also, how is this different than the often panned Royal Rife microscopes of the 1930's?)
cyborge
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
This technique should be described as micro-lensing, reference to the micro-sphere particle mentioned. Whereas a telescope using a gravity lensing technique viewing distant objects in the universe is described as macro-lensing. The very puny to the grotesquely large. Both systems require a dissociated lens.
You have to truly admire the visual range here.

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