Scientists Invent New Periscopes

Photo: Fluorescent image of a sunflower pollen grain

Sunflower pollen shown from five
sides; © Vanderbilt University

“With an off-the-shelf laboratory microscope you only see cells from one side, the top,” says team member Chris Janetopoulos, assistant professor of biological sciences. “Not only can we see the tops of cells, we can view their sides as well – something biologists almost never see.”

The researchers have dubbed their devices “mirrored pyramidal wells.” As the name implies, they consist of pyramidal-shaped cavities molded into silicon whose interior surfaces are coated with a reflective layer of gold or platinum. They are microscopic in dimension – about the width of a human hair – and can be made in a range of sizes to view different-sized objects. When a cell is placed in such a well and viewed with a regular optical microscope, the researcher can see several sides simultaneously.

“This technology is exciting because these mirrored wells can be made at very low cost, unlike other, more complex methods for 3D microscopy,” says Assistant Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering Kevin Seale. The Vanderbilt group is not the first to make microscopic pyramidal wells, but it is the first to apply them to make 3D images of microorganisms. In 2006, a group of scientists in England created pyramidal micromirrors and applied them to trapping atoms. And last spring researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology used similar structures to track nanoparticles.

So far, the researchers have used the mirrored wells to examine how protozoa swim and cells divide. “The method is particularly well suited for studying dynamic processes within cells because it can follow them in three dimensions,” says Janetopoulos. Researchers in his lab have used the wells to track the 3D position of the centrosome – the specialized region of a cell next to the nucleus that is the assembly point where the microscopic polymer tubes that serve as part of the cell’s cytoskeleton are assembled before cell division and broken down afterwards.; Source: Vanderbilt University