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How a novel class of microscopes has changed science

Super-resolution fluorescence microscopy FTW!

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The laws of physics are simple. There's a hard 500 nanometer limit on the size of objects that you can see through a conventional, optical microscope because that's the "diffraction limit" of a wavelength of visible light. Anything smaller than 500nm looks fuzzy and out of focus because it is simply too small for the optics to properly focus on. Basically diffraction limits exist because the light that bounces off the object and into your eyeballs is larger than the thing you're looking at. The problem is magnified when there are multiple sub-500 nm items in your field of view because their "fuzziness" overlaps and further obscures the view. But that's where super-resolution fluorescence microscopy comes in.

In 2014, William E. Moerner, a Stanford Chemistry Professor, collaborated with Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell to develop a method of getting around that inherent fuzziness. They employed "emitting molecules" that could discreetly "turn on" (emit light) or "turn off" under specific conditions. The team placed these molecules along the edges of the nanoscale objects they were studying, then cycled through sets of the emitters -- turning a just few on at a time -- and filmed the process. By measuring the distance and positioning between these light points, researchers can effectively map the size and shape of a molecule. It's essentially the same process as those motion-capture ping-pong balls that Hollywood and game developers use to generate CGI effects based on real movements. Think LoTR's Gollum or any EA NBA game from the past five years.

This breakthrough has increased the resolving power of modern microscopes by 10 to 100 times what we could muster before and that has huge implications for the scientific community. It's already allowed researchers to study the inner workings of cells in unprecedented detail, which could lead to more effective Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or Huntington's disease treatments.

[Image Credit: Getty]

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