Chip-sized super-resolution microscopes

Friday, 07 April, 2017

A new European project, ChipScope, is set to revolutionise optical microscopes with super-resolution capabilities, making them chip-sized, convenient, affordable and ubiquitously available.

A consortium of seven partners from five countries aims to develop a microscope capable of seeing the interior of living cells in real time.

Today, optical microscopes are limited in resolution by physical laws related to the wavelength of light, around half a thousandth of a millimetre. Single proteins, DNA molecules or the interior of living cells are much smaller and cannot be directly observed with conventional optical microscopes. At the moment, only indirect observation — that means interpretation of measured data — can be made, for example in complex, expensive and bulky electron microscopes. These devices, however, are not suitable for the observation of delicate living tissues.

During the ChipScope project, very small LEDs of 50 nm (this is 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) will be developed and used as light sources for the new microscope, which will be integrated on a chip. The fundamental difference with conventional optical microscopy will be that the illumination is made by extremely small individual light sources instead of a wide illumination field and tiny detectors in the camera. This allows super-resolution (<50 nm) optical microscopy.

To demonstrate the usefulness of this new scientific tool, at the end of the project the developed chip-sized microscope will be used to observe in real time the interior of cells present in a disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a chronic age-related lung disease killing 0.5 million people each year worldwide.

The new tool is expected to lead to fundamental breakthroughs in virtually every field of research that currently makes use of optical microscopes — particularly in the medical field. Making microscopic images will be easy and accessible to researchers who operate out in the field, away from scientific infrastructures, and they will be affordable to researchers in developing countries.

In the future, these microscopes-in-a-chip could also be integrated into consumer electronic products, being as common as a camera is in a smartphone today.

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