Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed an optical microscope which they say is the most powerful in the world and could be vital in understanding the causes of disease.
By combining an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere, the “microsphere nanoscope” can examine objects as small as 50 nanometres, breaking the record for the smallest object the eye can see using ordinary white light.
This is 20 times smaller than the limit for standard microscopes, one micrometre (0.001 millimetres).
While electron microscopes can only see the surface of a cell, this increased capacity means that the microscopes could examine the structure and for the first time examine live viruses to see what causes them.
Previously the only way was to use optical fluoresce microscopes to dye cells and see indirectly inside them, although the dyes cannot penetrate the viruses.
Led by Professor Lin Li and Dr Zengbo Wang in collaboration with the National University and Data Storage Institute of Singapore, the scientists say they will be able to use the microscope to detect even smaller images in the future.
Its nano-imaging system is based on capturing optical, near-field virtual images, which are free from optical diffraction, then amplifying them using a microsphere, a tiny spherical particle which is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.
Professor Li said the development could “revolutionize the way cells are studied” and allow scientists to closely examine viruses and biomedicine for the first time.
“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,” he said.
“Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometres, 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.”
Scientists will also be able to examine tiny objects like anodized aluminum oxide nano-structures and nano-patterns on Blu-Ray CVC discs which were not previously visible with an optical microscope.