In The Loupe  |  The Blog

Mold face in profile

This morning, I had a craving for pâté on toast. Weird maybe, but not as weird as what I found on the pâté, which has been sitting in the refrigerator too long. Mold! I though it would be fun to see what it looks like under one of our new Explorer handheld digital microscopes and before I knew it, I was seeing strange faces in the images.

These images were taken using an Explorer Pro 1 which includes 1.3MP resolution and 10x-50x, 200x variable magnification. It took all of a few seconds to set up and I have been dodging ‘real work’ while I played with it. But it is the day before Thanksgiving, after all!

That’s what I like about these Explorer microscopes. They are easy and fun to use while you can explore all sorts of items around your house and garden.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may your turkey be absent any sign of mold.

Mold face close-up

Dinosaur Face

Elephant Man Face


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Basal tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Occasionally…. very occasionally amid the deafening ‘noise’ of irrelevant blogs, tweets and posts, I stumble across a real gem, a testament to the power of human curiosity and creativity. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s microscopic study, The Topography of Tears is one such gem.

Inspired by her own “period of personal change, loss and copious tears”, Fisher was curious about whether tears of grief looked different from tears of joy and laughter. Not content with just being curious, she photographed 100 tears using a standard compound microscope. Many were her own tears. Some were from friends and at least one from a baby. Her conclusions were not just scientifically interesting, but poetic; her writing is as good as her photographs and it is worth reading her description of the project.

Laughing tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Science divides tears into three categories:

  • Physic tears such as grief and joy, which are triggered by extreme emotions
  • Basal tears which the eye releases continuously in tiny quantities as a corneal lubricant
  • Reflex tears in response to irritants such as onion vapors and dust.

As most people know, tears are in essence salt water, but they also contain a variety of oils, enzymes and antibodies. Physic tears, for example, contain hormones such as prolactin (associated with milk production) and the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin which acts as a natural painkiller when the body is under stress.

These different molecules account for some of the differences that Fisher photographed. In addition, the circumstances and setting of how the tear evaporates determines the shape and formation of the salt crystals so that two identical tears can look entirely different close up.

So much for the science!

For Fisher, tears are more poetic and “evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain……..a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is alike an ephemeral atlas”. Like Fibonacci numbers, Fisher sees a repetitive pattern in tears similar to the earth’s topography. ” I marvel….how the patterning of nature seems so consistent, regardless of scale. Patterns of erosion etched in to the earth over millions of years may look quite similar to the branched crystalline tears of an evaporated tear”.

Onion tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

“It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean. “

Tears of grief, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

What I particularly admire is that Fisher translated what started as idle curiosity into substantive action with  a result that is as beautiful as it is interesting. The idea is ingenious, but the execution is relatively simple, easily within the realm of the average family.

I would encourage you to try this experiment at home and send us your resulting images. After all, the Holidays is a time of extreme emotions all round, when tears of joy and grief abound.

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Every year, I take an oath with myself that this year, we will take a more frugal and intelligent approach to gifts for our three children. Rather than the plethora of toys and gadgets that create great excitement for all of about 10 minutes – or in the case of one son – until he moves on to open the next gift, we will purchase a gift that fulfills five key criteria:

1. It engages the brain beyond zapping aliens on a screen.

2. It is good fun and easy to use.

3. It will engage the entire family across generations

4. It is well-made and will last a long time.

5. It is affordable.

Unsurprisingly, several of our microscopes meet these criteria! This year, my 3 top Microscopy Gifts are as follows

1. Explorer Handheld Digital Microscopes

Brand new, they are high on WOW! factor for both kids and adults. Included software is easy-to-us even for tech dunces and with instant live images, we have found that they draw in the whole family very quickly….not to mention the fact that Dad will likely commandeer it! Prices start at $119 which is absurdly cheap for a good quality, reliable digital microscope.

2. Omano OM118 Series Compound Microscopes

These high power, compound microscopes are great starter microscopes and unlike many cheaper models, they are full-size. Suitable for Grades 3-12 and beyond. Prices start at $109.

3. Exo-Labs Focus Microscope Camera for iPad

This is a more expensive gift at $495 but it is SO cool. It’s the only digital microscope camera that includes Apple technology and works seamlessly with both iPhones and iPads.

Beyond that we have a wide array of microscopes and accessory kits for the Holidays not to mention a huge array of accessories that make great stocking stuffers.

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At, we often tell people that the design of light microscopes has not changed much since their invention in the 15th century. Our point is that unlike so much in the technology sphere, the basic modus operandus of microscopes has stayed pretty much the same.  There have been innovations in lenses and refinements to various mechanical parts, but it took an electron microscope to truly innovate and extend the abilityies of a microscope.

Now researchers at UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, have created a portable smartphone attachment that can be used to detect a single virus. This is pretty extraordinary given that up until now, virus identification lay in the realms of electron microscopes, which to say the least, are somewhat bigger! This new microscope weighs in at less than half a pound!

Professor Aydogan Ozcan and his team published their research in the American Chemical Society’s journal ACS Nano in September and in which they detailed a fluorescent microscope device fabricated by a 3-D printer. The ‘microscope’ contains a color filter, an external lens and a laser diode. The laser diode is set at a steep angle of approximately 75 degree, the idea being that oblique illumination avoids detection of scattered light and, therefore, interference with the fluorescent image.

When attached to a smartphone, the team were able to detect a single human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) particle, which is a common virus in birth defects such as brain damage and deafness and which can hasten the death of patients compromised immune systems, such HIV patients.

To put this innovation into perspective, consider the fact that  human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick. A single HCMV particle measures just 15-300 nanometers. Once commercially developed, this new microscope could prove extremely helpful in identifying viruses in remote field locations where larger microscopes are either unavailable for overly cumbersome. Imagine detecting a given virus in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa with your cell phone. Very cool!

It lends new meaning to the world is getting smaller!

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Today marks a first for….the publication of our first microscope infographic. The designer has included a variety of fun microscope facts, a few relevant literary quotes and a visual timeline of the evolution of microscopy. We are delighted as it does exactly what we had hoped it would do in adding an element of visual freshness and color to what is otherwise a somewhat dry topic. We are hoping that it will be a colorful addition to any science site or museum that wishes to carry it on their website while also forming a cheerful addition to our own website.

Our next step is to figure out the best way to print it so that schools can add it to their classroom walls.

You can view the whole infographic on our website. Please do let us know what you think and share it with your friends and colleagues.


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The Jakarta Times reported, yesterday that geologists fear that Mount Toba, on Sumatra may erupt again as a super volcano. Toba has already accounted for the largest known earthquake in the last 2 million years when it spewed out more than 2,500 cubic kilometers…that’s kilometers, not meters….of magma and which ultimately resulted in the formation of  the world’s largest quaternary caldera’s (35 x 100 km) that is now Lake Toba.

The scientists, who include Craig A. Chesner of Eastern Illinois University have identified a huge magma chamber at a depth between 20-100 kilometers. The concern is that one of the frequent earthquakes in the region could set off an eruption, which would have potentially devestating consequences.

Anau Krakatau 2009 - Photo: Iris Karinkanta

Indonesia consists of more than 13,000 islands, spread over an area the size of the United States. It has the greatest number and density of active volcanoes with 129 being actively monitored by scientists. Most volcanoes in Indonesia stretch from NW Sumatra (including Mount Toba), to the Banda Sea and are largely the result of the subduction of the Indian Ocean crust beneath the Asian tectonic plate.  As if this were not enough, there are other subductions that make the picture more complex and….more dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, it also has the largest number of historically active volcanoes (76), and the second largest number of dated eruptions (1,171)  exceeded marginally by Japan (1,274).  Indonesian eruptions have also caused the highest number of fatalities, damage to arable land, mudflows, tsunamis, domes, and pyroclastic flows. 80% of such dated eruptions have erupted since 1900 although such analysis only stretches back to the 15th century!

Volcanic Rocks, Courtesy of

Two of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in recent history include the devestating eruption of Tambora in 1815 which altered the world’s weather to such an extent that, in Europe, 1816 became known as ‘the year without summer’. More famous was the  disastrous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, not so much due to the magnitude of the eruption as to the magnitude of the tsunamis. Tsunamis accounted for 30-40,000 lives and secured Krakatau’s place in the collective memory of the world.

All of these volcanic eruptions create igneous rocks of one kind or another. Under a microscope, they can help tell the story of what happened and when while also presenting a glorious array of colors and crystals. Polarizing microscopes are best used for examining such rock specimens but surface textures an colors can be viewed with our new Explorer Series Rock Hound packages.

Explorer Pro Rock Hound Microscope Package

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Clearing Fall leaves is a thankless task so reward yourself by selecting a few of the more colorful leaves to view under a microscope.

Within seconds you will see what could be satellite images of Earth, the leathery skin of an exotic lizard or is that a giant maw, close up and in full color? The colors look glorious on the trees, but under the microscope the full detail is revealed.

The technique is simple. You simply place a leaf under a stereo microscope or, as with these images, under our new Explorer Series of handheld digital microscopes. We have packaged the Explorers with a range of engaging accessories  for the Holidays, all at reduced prices.

It’s a great way to engage your kids during a blustery afternoon. Our family has an annual tradition of catching falling leaves. It can get quite competitive – first to catch ten – but it’s good fun and great exercise.

It also leads in easily to us all gathered round the microscope to check out the various leaves we have collected. It’s such a relief to hear cries of “Wow, that’s so cool” from other than an X-Box game!

The Seasons offer a wealth of such specimens to view under a microscope……next up, at least in the North East,….examining snowflakes!


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In the midst of researching a blog for Scientific American on photomicrography, I stumbled across this innovative exhibition of Microscopy at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Created by the Institute for Genomic Biology using Zeiss confocal microscopes, the exhibits address challenges facing humanity in the areas of health, agriculture, energy and the environment.

The exhibition is expected to run over the next year and includes two ten foot banners and ten pictures located past Security in Concourse A.

“Art is a really cool way to learn and jump start conversations about research,” said Kathryn Faith Coulter, the institute’s multimedia design specialist and the exhibition’s managing artist. “By sparking a natural curiosity through these vibrant images, we hope people will discover how the research conducted at the University of Illinois relates to their families, friends and communities.”

“This exhibit includes images from a variety of scientific disciplines, from coral polyps to kidney stones and human colon cancer cells,” said Glenn Fried, the director of Core Facilities at the institute. “The images represent much more than art. They represent scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that will impact how we treat human diseases, produce abundant food and fuel a technologically driven society.”

This exhibit was made possible in part by the Chicago Department of Aviation. Some images from the Art of Science 3.0 exhibit are also on display at the I-Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

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…Of Knights & Parasites

I can’t resist sharing this gem from my alma mater.

In a study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Paleopathology, Doctors Piers D. Mitchell and Evilena Anastasiou of the Archaeology & Anthropology department at the University of Cambridge discovered and analyzed preserved feces in the Frankish castle of Saranda Kolones on the island of Cyprus.

Built in 1191, the castle was occupied by the crusading armies of King Richard I for 30 years before being destroyed by an earthquake. The researchers took samples from the castle latrine, suspended them in water to make a solution, and then passed the solution through small strainers. In analyzing the samples of feces under a compound microscope, they found both roundworm and whipworm eggs. Both parasites occur due to unhygienic conditions such as poor bathroom hygiene or eating unwashed vegetables. Ununtreated, roundworm in particular can lead to severe fever and death.

The Crusaders are known to died in droves on their way to the Holy Land and this study indicates that in addition to malnutrition, poor hygiene and parasitic infections such as these must have accounted for a significant proportion of these deaths en route. In fact, 15 to 20 percent of crusaders died of either malnutrition or infectious disease while on expedition.

“Once hatched in the human intestines, the immature roundworms undergo an incredible migration, with the first stage larvae penetrating the blood vessels and appearing as second stage larvae in the liver within six hours after the initial infection,” the study authors wrote. “In the liver, the larvae develop into their third stage and they then migrate to the heart and lungs. Eight to 10 days after the original infection, the larvae burrow their way from the heart and lungs back to the small intestine, where they reach maturity. The mature female then starts to lay about 200,000 eggs per day.”

That seems like a crusade in itself!


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My kids love chicken nuggets. In spite of the deep fried coating, I also like them as the kids are eating something healthy….right? Wrong! At least according to Dr deShazo, Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

He recently asked his pathology colleague, Dr Steven Bigler, to perform an ‘autopsy’ on two nuggets purchased from two different “national fast-food chains near the academic health center in Jackson, Mississippi.”  According to Atlantic Magazine, there are four McDonalds within two miles of the center and one inside the hospital although the study does not state from which fast-food chains the nuggets were purchased!

McDonald’s website states “The only meat used in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets is chicken breast meat.”

Of course, if over half your product is not made of meat, this statement could still be true.

“I was floored. I was astounded” said deShazo of his reaction to examining the nuggets under  a microscope.  This is what he saw.

Pathology of a Chicken Nugget - University of MIssissippi

The first nugget (excluding the breading), was approximately 50% muscle with the other half largely composed of fat, blood vessels and nerve mixed with “generous quantities of epithelium (skin of visceral organs) and associated supportive tissue”. In summary, 56% fat, 25% carbohydrates and a paltry 19% protein.

The nugget from the second restaurant was 40% skeletal muscle in addition to “generous quantities of fat and other tissue, including connective tissue and bone”. 58% fat, 24% carbohydrates and 18% protein.

“We’ve taken a healthy product – lean, white meat – and processed it, goo-ed it up with fat, sugar and salt” deShazo said. “Kids love that combination”. Their conclusion is dire: “Chicken nuggets are mostly fat and their name is a misnomer, because the predominant components aren’t chicken”. Meaning not chicken in the normal sense of chicken meat as opposed to fat and skin.

When chicken is processed, there’s some chicken left on the bone,” deShazo  explained. “You can actually vibrate that stuff off, and you get these chicken leftovers, and you can put it together, mix it up with other substances, and come out with a goo that you can fry and call a chicken nugget. It’s a combination of chicken, carbohydrates, and fats, and other substances that make it glue together. It’s almost like super glue that we’re eating in some fast-food restaurants.”

As deShazo noted, not all chicken nuggets are as bad. KFC and Chick-fil-A, for example, both claim that their chicken nuggets are entirely made of chicken breast meat while the National Chicken Council, which has been quick to play down deShazo’s conclusions. Dr Ashley Peterson, the NCC’s VP of SCience & Technology told Reuters “This study evaluates only two chicken nugget samples out of billions of chicken nuggets that are made every year”. Frankly, that is what concerns me. Let’s assume that one of the nuggets was purchased from McDonald’s. If that were the case, it is not  a huge leap to conclude that the millions, if not billions, of chicken nuggets sold by them are equally unnutritious and worse, are yet another contributing factor to the epidemic of child obesity in the US?

The NCC pointed out that all products must include nutrition information on labels, but to what extent does this really help? How many people know what level of protein or fat is acceptable in a chicken nugget? And I’ll guarantee that that the label does not state: “40% crushed chicken bones, 50% mashed muscle and 10% stomach lining!

As if that were not bad enough, the folks managing companies such as McDonald’s will defend their product to the last dime, but I wonder what they feed their children at home? I suspect not stomach lining and skeletal bones.

Time to end this game of chicken with our kids……. Let them eat healthily.

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Welcome to our new website design skin, launched over the weekend. The re-design is entirely cosmetic with a more modern look and cleaner elements to make it easier for you to navigate. For example, the drop-down category menu is much easier to use with sub-menus that give you clear choices related to your specific application.

Since microscopes are increasingly modular we have tried to present a single model with its variations on one product page. For example, an Omano OM2300S-V7 boom stereo microscope  includes the option to select a binocular or trinocular microscope head, a camera and various key accessories such as a barlow lens. Your options are clearly laid out for swift and efficient selection. Some of our competitors list each variation as a separate microscope which creates dozens of product pages, all of which include the same underlying microscope but with minor variations due to the addition of a barlow lens or different eyepiece. We find this confusing and often verging on false advertising.

Our Education Center has also been updated and we encourage you to browse the information and articles. We shall shortly be adding some interesting experiments for the microscope and we encourage you all to submit your own favorite microscopy experiment.

Finally, please……send us your feedback. What do you like about the new website? What do you think we should change or improve? We welcome all constructive criticism…after all, this is your site!



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Microscopic view of cicada killer head

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp

Danny brought in this beauty, last week and we took the opportunity to snap a few images under various microscopes.  It looks intimidating, but is harmless in spite of the females having a large stinger. It is an Eastern Cicada Killer wasp, which exists to cull some of the annual cicada population. The female uses her stinger to paralyze a cicada prior to flying it back to her nest which is an amazing sight since the cicada is typically significantly larger than the wasp itself. As a result, she hauls it up a tree and then launches herself off towards her burrow, often repeating this laborious process several times in order to get there. Each male egg gets one cicada and each female at least two cicadas. Unsurprisingly, the female wasps are larger than the males.

Cicada Killer Burrow

You can always identify cicada killer wasps not only due to their size (up to two inches), but due to their burrows which always have a mound of earth outside along with a characteristic trench running through it to the hole. And there will be lots of them, too…….thousands at our last house!

Leg Spines

As you can see, up close under a microscope, they are beautiful. The spines on their legs serve to help the females dig their burrows. They use their powerful jaws to loosen the soil and then excavate the soil using their legs. Hence the mound outside although they also use excavated earth to seal their egg chambers.

We used a Dino-Lite AM4113T to view this one as well as one of our new Explorer Pro digital microscopes that we will be launching soon.





Engorged nymph deer ticks

Insects seem to be a perennial favorite of my blogs including ticks so how could I resist posting on these disgusting examples?! Rhonda is responsible for bringing these guys to work, but in case you are wondering…… she picked them off her dog and put them in a Zip Lock bag. We could see dozens of them inside the bag and when examined under a digital microscope, we could see them  all crawling around.

You can see quite clearly how engorged the two ticks on the right have become after a good feeding on dog’s blood. The other one, below has not yet started its blood meal so it has yet to engorge itself.

Nymph deer tick - unengorged

Ticks have only one blood meal each year, but they take their time when they do or, at least, the females do. These are nymph ticks. In their nymph state both males and females have a good blood meal. Next year, only the females have a really big blood meal. Most of the adult males eat sparingly, which is why it is important to know the difference between male and female ticks. Female ticks spend more time eating and so have more time to transmit the bacterium.  Females typically have reddish orange coloring. Males have minimal if any coloring beyond black. However, I don’t think we will be adding this lot to our collection of insects in the office. Black widow spiders and rhino beetles are worth keeping, but ticks….I think not! The ticks were viewed under our new Explorer Digital Microscopes which we will launch soon.

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The creation of the transmission electron microscope (TEM) was a revolution in the field of microscopy; for the first time, it allowed humans to see things that were too small for traditional light-based microscopes to resolve, such as individual cells and large atomic molecules, by exposing samples to a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. However, the TEM had limitations of its own; it could only resolve an image if the sample was thin enough for electrons to pass through, so biological samples had to be preserved and sliced up, destroying any potential for viewing the minute changes in a living organism and making it impossible to view a complete image of the specimen. TEM also suffered from diffraction issues, as the electron beam could only resolve to a certain magnification level before the electrons scattered too much to form a definite image.

Shortly after the TEM’s 1931 debut, a Russian scientist named Manfred von Ardenne invented a true electron-based microscope that worked on a slightly different principle, and patented the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in 1937. This machine finally enabled scientists to see complete specimens in high detail, and resolve three-dimensional shapes. Instead of relying on a beam of electrons to carry the image away from the specimen, the scanning electron microscope works by scanning the beam across the specimen in a series of rectangular areas. This technique is known as raster scanning, and it is common in computer graphics; it’s how printers create images on paper, and how older CRT televisions created their images. When an SEM scans a specimen, the electron beam loses energy; this energy is converted into heat, scattered electrons, X-rays, and light emission. The SEM’s lenses can detect this energy, and it maps these signals into an image based on where the electron beam was located when it lost that particular amount of energy. By scanning in this manner, an SEM can resolve specimens as three-dimensional shapes.

The specimens in an SEM must be electrically conductive, in order to attract the electrons in the first place. While metals require very little preparation, non-conductive specimens must be coated with a very thin layer of gold, platinum, or tungsten. The SEM uses an electron gun much like the TEM, and uses a tiny cathode of tungsten at its tip. The SEM also requires the specimen to sit in a vacuum, in order to prevent interference from artifically disrupting the electron beam.

There are other types of electron microscopes, but the SEM was a major breakthrough because it allowed researchers to capture minute details of things like a house fly’s eye, a snowflake, or an ant’s head. Special environmental SEMs can observe samples that are in low-pressure environments (rather than complete vacuums) and do not require biological materials to be coated in gold. It is highly useful for seeing biological specimens, even scanning still-living insects.

By the 1930s, scientists had pushed optical microscopy to its limit, and had found that there were certain things that they just couldn’t resolve with traditional magnification; at some point, the visible light waves were just too big to accurately reflect off of a tiny sample. This raised a problem: how could you magnify an object without using light? As discussed in our last blog post, Birth of the Electron Microscope Part 1: The Problem, the foundations were already laid for a new method of magnification.

Scientists had experimented with the notion of using ultraviolet microscopes, but UV wavelengths still weren’t small enough. However, attention soon turned to “cathode rays,” or streams of electrons; when they were accelerated in a vacuum, travelling at a wavelength that was much smaller than visible light. Furthermore, it was possible to direct electrons using magnetic fields, similar to how traditional lenses directed light. In 1931, German scientists Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska built the first Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) prototype. While their first attempt was unable to exceed the magnification limits of light microscopy, they soon refined the equipment and succeeded in obtaining images at the sub-micrometer level, revealing incredible details about the structure of cells, molecules, metals, and crystals.

Whereas optical microscopes could only resolve to a few hundred nanometers (a billionth of a meter), a transmission electron microscope can resolve images at the picometer level – that’s equal to one trillionth of a meter, and is the unit that measures the diameter of large molecules and atoms. A TEM consists of several components. It begins with a vacuum system which will allow the electrons to travel in a wave, as well as an electron emission source – typically a spike-shaped tungsten filament, or a crystal of lanthanum hexaboride, both of which are large molecules with a lot of electrons floating around the nuclei. The electron “gun” is connected to a high-voltage source, which will cause it to emit electrons into the vacuum. The beam of electrons is manipulated by a series of electromagnets, including a “lens” that is designed to act similarly to those on an optical microscope. When the electrons are focused on the specimen and hit the slide, they will scatter in the same way that light particles do, and therefore convey information about the structure of the specimen. This “image” can be viewed by exposing the electron beam to a photographic plate or a specialized camera that can display the result on a computer.

The specimen in a TEM is very different from a slide on an optical microscope, and presents one of the biggest limitations of the TEM. In order to properly resolve, the sample has to be thin enough for electrons to pass through it, typically about 100 nanometers wide. Any biological specimens must be infused with chemicals and embedded in resin before being sliced so thinly, and it’s impossible to view anything in motion or examine a single specimen as it changes from one day to the next. TEM is also subject to diffraction, similar to optical microscopes, which makes it difficult to see certain details.

While it was a good start, there was still some refinements to be made to the ultra-small world of electron microscopy – and so much more to learn about the tiniest building blocks of life.

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