Cambridge Science Centre

 

Microscopes: Then and now

Written on 20 Jun 2013 in Blog

When you look around you, what can you see? Our eyes are pretty amazing. Humans can see distant planets millions of miles away or things as small as 0.1 millimeters, such as a human hair. But to see anything smaller we need the help of magnifying tools to see them.

The Cambridge Science Centre is currently hosting an exhibit where visitors can use simple lens microscopes to look at a number of specimens such as human cheek cells, water fleas, a cat flea, moth wing scales, diatoms and zebra fish larvae.

It was developed and built by Dr Brad Amos, an Emeritus Research Group Leader in the MRC Lab of Molecular Biology, for the Science Exhibition to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.

Visitors can view these just by looking through the handheld microscopes without the need for special lighting; just holding it up to the sky light in the Centre reveals the microscopic specimens. Many of these can be found around us, but are not generally noticed as they are too small to see with the naked eye.

In fact, some of these specimens have been documented as early as the 17th Century by the English Scientist Robert Hooke, using a simple compound microscope. He published a book “Micrographia” where the reading public could see large pictures of tiny things that they had never seen before. Robert Hooke is also credited with discovering the basic unit of all life, the cell.

About Dr Brad Amos

Bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cells in culture. Blue: nuclei; red: mitochondria; green: microfilaments. Computer generated image from a 3D model based on a confocal laser scanning microscopy using fluorescent marker dyes.

Brad has spent much of his scientific career developing sophisticated microscopes. He was key to the development of the laser scanning confocal microscope, which allows scientists to obtain an image of small sections inside thick specimens without having to slice them open. The confocal microscope has had world-wide impact in advancing research on cells, developmental biology and neurobiology. It is also used in the field of material science.

Brad’s current interest is in developing a unique microscope with a giant lens, called Mesolens. This microscope breaks the conventional rules of microscope building, which uses small lenses. It is aimed at improving the confocal microscope to enable to see larger sections of a specimen, so that every cell in a piece of tissue or entire mouse embryo 6mm long can be recorded in three dimensions with an incredible level of detail.

If you are interested in seeing the invisible, but don’t have a microscope at hand, why don’t you have a go at constructing a light microscope yourself. It is possible to build a working microscope inspired by early models from inexpensive, easily obtainable modern materials using lenses of disposable cameras.

Find out more about what can be found in Brad’s lab here http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2013/05/15/whats-in-a-workspace-brad-amos-and-his-basement/

Writetn by Dr katia Smith-Litiere

IMAGE: Bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cells in culture. Blue: nuclei; red: mitochondria; green: microfilaments. Computer generated image from a 3D model based on a confocal laser scanning microscopy using fluorescent marker dyes. From wikimedia