Several things account for how we use microscopes nowadays. The principles of the optical systems that we depend on in microscopy have probably not changed a great deal since the turn of the millennium, though we have definitely come a long way from the invention of the compound microscope in the 1590s and the first practical microscope in the late 1600s.
The changes lie mostly in the ways that we acquire images and process microscopic information, and in the technologies that shift microscopy from manual, or human-operated, to automated and digitized. Regardless, a microscope carries a timeless function. It must help accomplish three things: magnify the specimen, resolve or separate the details in the specimen, and render these details visible to the camera or the naked human eye. These processes have fueled a number of important scientific discoveries, and will account for many more to come.
Evolving microscopic technologies
We use microscopes for the precise study of small and complex worlds, like those of individual cells in the human body. Notably, a microscope enables scientists to view not only objects themselves at high magnification, but to study the relationship between each of the object’s structures and functions at different levels of resolution.
Modern microscopes come in the iterations of optical microscopes, electron microscopes, and scanning probe microscopes, with optical microscopes being the most commonly used. Under the type of optical microscopes are wide-field microscopes (such as basic light microscopes) and confocal microscopes, which focus smaller and more precise beams of light into specimens at one narrow level of depth at a time.
We can trace a number of advancements in microscopic technologies to the last century, especially with regard to the quality of cameras and electronic sensors used in microscopes. But custom technologies also play a part in modern labs. For example, technologies for the microscope’s focus axes include piezo technology and direct drive technology with linear motors. Precision z-focusing stages made through the latter can achieve the critical depth of focus needed by a confocal microscope, and can answer the need for high-resolution and repeatable imaging.
In these cases of advancement, it is most important for the scientist to ask: what measurement or technique can answer their research questions? Engaging with these research questions is how modern microscopic technology serves not only science as we know it, but also innovation.
Fields of breakthrough
Zaccharias and Hans Janssen, a father-and-son team of spectacle makers in the late 16th century, first experimented in the 1590s with multiple lenses in a singular tube, and were able to magnify images up to 9x. Less than a hundred years later, a fellow Dutchman named Anton van Leeuwenhoek built the first practical microscopes and thus became the “Father of Microbiology,” being able to see and describe bacteria for the first time from droplets of water.
Modern scientists can imbibe the Janssens and van Leeuwenhoek when they achieve a greater level of insight with the microscope. We now have the capacity to interpret specimen structures in both 2D and 3D; it is just a matter of selecting the right lighting techniques, physically sectioning the specimens, analyzing their features, and computing suitable parameters to effectively describe these features.
Microscopes have contributed to scientific discovery in multiple disciplines. With better microscopic technology, we improve our knowledge in areas such as the life sciences, medicine, genetics, environmental science, materials science, and engineering. The modern applications are broad and quite awe-inspiring in scope.
For example, in the field of confocal microscopy, a research team based in Scotland’s University of Strathclyde has designed a microscope called the Mesolens. The Mesolens can go as far as to image entire tumors in one field of view, and examined 10- to 12-day-old mouse embryos in stunning detail, rendering structures inside of the cells visible to the researchers. The microscope was rightfully included in Physics World’s Top Ten Breakthroughs of 2016.
With those possibilities in mind, we can conclude that modern microscopy will have even more to offer us as the years go by. Myriad technologies have enriched this particular field, and will of course pave the way for future scientific discovery and innovation.