The State of Microscopy for 2012

In various recent interviews, I’ve been asked about the state of microscopy and, most specifically, the rise of technologies such as  AFM (atomic force microscopy) and Raman confocal and the subsequent demise of more traditional light and electron microscopy. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “News of their demise is greatly exaggerated.” As always, information is key to the microscopist. Because each technique forms an image via a unique interaction between the probe (photons, electrons, atomic forces, etc.) and the sample, each reveals its own part of the puzzle. As a result, not only are traditional techniques not going away, they are flourishing and contributing to a growing trend toward correlative microscopy in which multiple microscopy and/or spectroscopy techniques combine to investigate multiple, integrated facets of a problem.

But the question itself has merit: What is the state of microscopy? Acknowledging the very limited space of an editor’s page, here is a quick summary of new trends as well as a peek at intriguing, disruptive technologies for 2012.

Overall picture

In terms of instrument design, smaller, faster, and more economical are still key drivers.

Manufacturers of both SEM (scanning electron microscopy) and AFM report a major shift in microscope design away from generic stands toward systems more dedicated to specific application areas. Biology and natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals have both been major targets for these new designs.

Scientifically, the push continues to image smaller structures, specifically single molecules in the life sciences and atoms in the world of materials. Across all disciplines, structure:function relationships have never been more important.

Biology leads the way

The cell has become the microscopist’s laboratory. Research in proteins and genetics is driving development in all sectors of microscopy, not just optical microscopy. The ultimate goal is to image and track single molecules as they move through a specific process in the cell. Optical microscopy has made huge strides toward achieving that goal, skirting Abbe’s diffraction limit using new super-resolution techniques such as structured illumination, PALM (photoactivated light microscopy), STORM (stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy), and STED (stimulated emission depletion microscopy) to routinely map structures as small as 10–50 nm.

At these levels, system stability has a huge impact on image information. Controlling factors such as stage drift or thermal drift of the objective are just the tip of the iceberg. To answer the new requirements, Mad City Labs (Madison, WI) has developed Nano-Cyte LC. Using proprietary 3-D nanopositioning and fiduciary markers within the sample, the economical and retrofittable system provides dynamic, system level stabilization especially well suited for single-molecule studies such as monitoring the rates of RNA transcriptions.

Microscopy/spectroscopy take new directions

Both hyperspectral imaging and Raman have come into their own and are enjoying strong growth, but the real news on the microspectroscopy front comes from cathodoluminescence (CL). Until recently, CL was only offered as an SEM add-on and was limited to select geology and semiconductor applications. In the hands of AttoLight (Lausanne, Switzerland), CL is now available as a fully integrated, compact optical/SEM/CL platform offering nanoscale spatial resolution across the full spectrum, with a 300-μm field of view and 10× brighter signal. Field-retrofittable kits offer upgrades to a 9-axis cryostat stage and pico-second time-resolved CL. The new combination promises to carry CL into the mainstream for advanced material studies in photonics, glasses, and ceramics as well as innovative biological applications.

Nanopositioning and nanofabrication

As a field, nanopositioning has matured, but the next hot direction is nano robots. Newcomer Imina (Ecublens, Switzerland) debuted miBots at M&M (Microscopy and Microanalysis, Nashville, TN, August 7–11, 2011). These little untethered robots can sit on an optical or EM stage in singles or groups of up to four, each moving independently to position or manipulate parts of the sample. Also at M&M, Xidex (Austin, TX) announced the NanoBot®. While useful for nanomanipulation force and thermal sensing, NanoBots can also nanofabricate, delivering up to four different gases for deposition or etching.

Move over, Apple

Although biologists have used Macs extensively, NT-MDT (Zelenograd, Russia) was the first company in our industry to commercialize on a Mac platform. Both the Solver Next (announced in 2009) and intriguing new NanoEducator (2011) run on Macs, with applets to transfer images to “i” devices (iPhone, iPod, iPad) and conduct simple measurement.

In the new InTouch Scope™, the 6010LA, JEOL (Peabody, MA) has used Windows 7 to take the Mac concept a step further. Images on the 6010LA’s displays can be Mac-nipulated using gestures to expand and scroll around the field, while a special iPad applet allows researchers to remotely monitor longer experiments such as mapping, working in their offices or other locations, and then return to the microscopy suite only when they see that the experiment is complete.

Importance of overseas markets

The last major trend is the importance of emerging markets. Both microscopy industry leaders and scientists are noting the migration of science and technology foci to India, Latin America, China, and Singapore. Microscopy has always been a global community, with a fluid global flow of information and technology, but the economic challenges facing the U.S. and Europe are pushing both eastward. Uncertainty is never helpful for growth in any market.

State of the microscopical nation

Clearly, microscopy in all its manifestations is alive and well. Innovation is in full swing, and traditional techniques are partnering with more recent developments to evolve intriguing solutions that continually expand the scientific envelope. By the time you read this, fall meetings will be underway. It will be interesting to see what emerges at key exhibits such as the Society for Neuroscience (www.sfn.org), Cell Biology (www.ascb.org), and Materials Research (www.MRS.org).

Ms. Foster is President and Chief Strategic Officer, The Microscopy & Imaging Place, Inc., McKinney, TX, U.S.A., and Consulting Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; tel.: 972-924-5310; e-mail: bfoster@the-mip.com.

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