University of Manchester
Researchers have designed a nanoscope that combines the power of an optical microscope with transparent microspheres of glass.
updated 3/4/2011 5:45:28 PM ET 2011-03-04T22:45:28

What if a microscope were powerful enough to detail the inner workings of a virus hijacking a cell?

A team of University of Manchester and National University of Singapore researchers designed a nanoscope that creates the possibility of doing just that. Their work allows scientists to image objects better than before by combining the power of an optical microscope with transparent microspheres of glass.

The new equipment can provide clear images of objects as little as 50 nanometers wide — 20 times smaller than previous technologies. For reference, one nanometer equals one billionth of a meter.

The fact that the technology defies traditional restraints caused by the diffraction of light — or limits when light encounters objects — makes the microscope unique.

This is because microspheres, or tiny round structures, are used to redirect and amplify light lost from the process of diffraction, creating a more detailed picture of samples being imaged. Although current technologies, including electron microscopes, produce high resolution images, they only reveal the surfaces of cells and viruses, not what's occurring inside them.

Scientists say the nanoscope will allow other researchers to see what really happens when a virus hijacks a cell in real-time. It may also be used to monitor events inside of cells caused by bacteria and other microorganisms.

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Using this technology, the team says it will be possible to make even smaller biological features visible in the future.

"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," leading researcher Lin Li said in a University of Manchester press release.Theoretically, there is no limit on how small an object we will be able to see."

The findings are featured in the journal Nature Communications.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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