Reimagining the Light Microscope

I worked in a lab that used cells grown in vitro, on a glass plate. You have to put them in an incubator for them to survive and thrive, but you often have to take them out of the incubator to put them under a microscope and examine them, often for extended periods of time. This can be problematic in terms of maintaing their temperature, not to mention time-consuming. 

So it gives me personal satisfaction to read this, from PhysOrg: CalTech engineers have built a petri dish (the main type of dish for growing cells) with a built-in light and image sensor that can wire into a computer outside of the incubator, meaning you can examine cells at your leisure and perhaps with better imaging techniques. 

As the image sensor takes pictures of the culture, that information is sent out to the laptop, enabling the researchers to acquire and save images of the cells as they are growing in real time…

“It radically reconceives the whole idea of what a light microscope is,” says Elowitz, a professor of biology and bioengineering at Caltech and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Instead of a large, heavy instrument full of delicate lenses, Yang and his team have invented a compact lightweight microscope with no lens at all, yet one that can still produce high-resolution images of living cells. Not only that, it can do so dynamically, following events over time in live cells, and across a wide range of spatial scales from the subcellular to the macroscopic.”

Elowitz says the technology can capture things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible — even with state-of-the-art light microscopes that are both much more complicated and much more expensive.

“With ePetri, you can survey the entire field at once, but still maintain the ability to ‘zoom in’ to any cells of interest,” he says. “In this regard, perhaps it’s a bit like an episode of CSI where they zoom in on what would otherwise be unresolvable details in a photograph.”

Microscopes are hugely important and used a lot, so any breakthrough in their use in research will be very far-reaching. I can’t tell if this system is actually practical yet – I imagine they’ll at least have to get rid of the wire first before it’s widely implemented – but it’s a step towards a new paradigm in cell imaging, which is huge. Science takes a long, long time to do; anything that cuts that time down will mean great things for scientific advancement. 

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