Miraculous microscopes: a brief history

It is impossible to imagine where cell biology would be without the invention of the light microscope. But what is now a complex network of lasers, optics and mechanics, started off as a simple brass plate, with a small glass sphere serving as an objective – while the only light needed was sunlight. And we have Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek to thank for that.

Mesmerising microscopy: Imre Gaspar, staff scientist in the Ephrussi group at EMBL Heidelberg, imaged these Drosophila ovarioles using a Leica SP8 confocal laser scanning microscope

Back in 1673 van Leeuwenhoek, then a curious young trader, began to take an interest in lens making – and from there, microscopes. Developing his ingenuously simple contraption to zoom in on the micro-world, he stepped into a completely different dimension, discovering what he called “animalcules” – or as we know them today, microorganisms.

Fast-forward two centuries, and Carl Zeiss, struggling with his lens-making workshop, decided to switch to microscope making. A collaboration with physicist Ernst Abbe provided the spark for microscopy to take another giant leap. Abbe postulated the Abbe sine condition, which had to be fulfilled by a lens to produce sharp, undistorted images. Calling in glass chemist Otto Schott, the trio put their heads together to design and build the first apochromatic objective – a powerful device allowing clearer images with minimal colour distortion – lenses that are still used in science today.

Developing his ingenuously simple contraption to zoom in on the micro-world, he stepped into a completely different dimension.

Abbe’s astonishing contribution to microscopy did not stop there. Crucially, he also defined the theoretical resolution limit of the microscope – roughly 100 times smaller than a human cell. This resolution limit held up for more than a century, until Stefan Hell, Eric Betzig and William Moerner smashed through the diffraction barrier to make super-resolution microscopy a reality.

Tags: microscopy, Science and Society

Picture of the week

At EMBL, we have many dream teams – groups of individuals who support each other, innovate, and work together. One of those dream teams bridges two core facilities at EMBL Rome.

By  Jodie Haigh

Purple, blue and yellow dots on a black background.


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