UK super microscope can reveal secret life of viruses

10:10, June 03, 2011      

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Scientists in the United Kingdom have produced the world's most powerful optical microscope that could help understand the causes of many viruses and diseases.

The reason why so many diseases cause infection and death could be better understood with the assistance of this new equipment that has broken the theoretical limit of optical microscopes.

The hugely increased capacity means the scientists at the University of Manchester, led by Chinese professors Li Lin and Wang Zengbo, could examine the inside of human cells and examine live viruses for the first time, potentially to see what causes them.

Previously, users of the standard optical microscope could only clearly see items with a size of about one micrometer, equal to one-millionth of a meter. But now, the researchers can see 20 times smaller under normal lights.

The team reported its findings in the journal Nature Communications, having created a microscope that shatters the record for the smallest object the eye can see, beating the diffraction limit of light.

By combining an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere to create what they call a microsphere nanoscope, the Manchester researchers have taken the technology beyond the theoretical limit of optical microscopy.

Electron microscopes, the only existing microscopes that have the capacity to examine tiny items, 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, who are from the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, now believe they can use the microscope to detect far smaller images in the future. Their method has no theoretical limit in the size of feature that can be seen.

The 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 that is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.

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 nanometers, 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."

He continued: "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 dyeing them, but these dyes cannot penetrate viruses.

"Seeing inside a cell directly without dyeing 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," added Professor Li.

Among other tiny objects the scientists will be able to examine are anodised aluminum oxide nano-structures, and nano-patterns on Blu-ray CVC disks, not previously visible with an optical microscope.

Source: British Embassy in China
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