A new microscope developed by St Andrews researchers uses a curved beam of light for better imaging

Innovative microscope design improves cell visualisation

A new microscope uses a curved beam of light to create 3D images of inner structures of cells.

The device, developed by researchers at the University of St Andrews and described in the May issue of the Nature Methods journal, represents an upgrade of the existing light sheet imaging technology.

While conventional light sheet microscopes have only been able to scan a limited number of cells at a time, the new method, using a beam of light with an unusually curved trajectory, enables analysing hundreds of cells in one sweep.

"There has never been a more important time to improve and enhance our visualisation of the biological world,” said Professor Kishan Dholakia, the leader of the research team. “Light plays an ever more important role in our understanding of how events at the cellular level can alter the course of the development of an organism, or the onset and evolution of disease.”

Light sheet microscopes create 3D images of cells by observing how a sample lights up slice-by-slice when it is moved through a razor-thin sheet of light. However, scientists have struggled to keep the light focused enough to enable cell tissue penetration over a greater sample area.  

The St Andrews researchers used the so-called Airy beam instead, named after the British astronomer Sir George Airy, which is shaped in a way enabling high-resolution without the beam having to be thin.

This method allows a more efficient use of light, displaying the inner details of hundreds of cells with clarity equivalent to an image taken by an extended ultra-thin 'blade’ microscope.

“This Airy mode is set to change the way we perform light sheet imaging, a method poised to impact our understanding of the development of complex organs such as the brain in model organisms,” said Tom Vettenburg, co-author of the study.

The new device is hoped to improve understanding of cellular-level changes related to diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and Huntington's disease.

"This is an exciting example of how innovative photonics can challenge and improve the way we see the biomedical world," Vettenburg said.

The University of St Andrews is currently seeking partners to help commercialise the technology. The original project was funded through a UK EPSRC Programme Grant.

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