Underwater microscope offers a brand new look at sea life

Scientists can study very tiny undersea organisms in their native habitat.

Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Scientists have a hard time studying microscope sea life, and for good reason. Underwater scientific equipment can't study things at that scale, and bringing samples up to the surface frequently deprives them of that all-important natural context. Enter UC San Diego: its researchers have crafted the Benthic Underwater Microscope, the first undersea microscope that can study "millimeter-scale" activity in its native habitat. It combines a water-friendly computer with an imaging system that revolves around both a high magnification lens and a flexible, tunable lens that can see shapes in 3D. Combined with an LED ring light and fluorescence imaging, the system shouldn't be daunted by most water conditions or unusual specimens.

The technology is already paying dividends. Divers have already studied coral species fighting each other with chemicals, coral polyps hugging each other and algae invading in the midst of coral bleaching (when coral polyps eject as a result of hot ocean temperatures, leaving the coral vulnerable). And of course, there's a ton of potential. Scientists already want to study particles above the coral to see how water flow keeps it alive, and it's easy to see the microscope coming into play whenever lab studies just aren't enough.