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Light microscopes commonly used in the undergraduate college laboratory magnify up to approximately 400 times. Two parameters that are important in microscopy are magnification and resolving power. Magnification is the degree of enlargement of an object. Resolving power is the ability of a microscope to allow the eye to distinguish two adjacent structures as separate; the higher the resolution, the closer those two objects can be, and the better the clarity and detail of the image. When oil immersion lenses are used, magnification is usually increased to 1,000 times for the study of smaller cells, like most prokaryotic cells. Because light entering a specimen from below is focused onto the eye of an observer, the specimen can be viewed using light microscopy. For this reason, for light to pass through a specimen, the sample must be thin or translucent.

Concept in action

For another perspective on cell size, try the HowBig interactive.

A second type of microscope used in laboratories is the dissecting microscope ( [link] b ). These microscopes have a lower magnification (20 to 80 times the object size) than light microscopes and can provide a three-dimensional view of the specimen. Thick objects can be examined with many components in focus at the same time. These microscopes are designed to give a magnified and clear view of tissue structure as well as the anatomy of the whole organism. Like light microscopes, most modern dissecting microscopes are also binocular, meaning that they have two separate lens systems, one for each eye. The lens systems are separated by a certain distance, and therefore provide a sense of depth in the view of their subject to make manipulations by hand easier. Dissecting microscopes also have optics that correct the image so that it appears as if being seen by the naked eye and not as an inverted image. The light illuminating a sample under a dissecting microscope typically comes from above the sample, but may also be directed from below.

Part a: This light microscope has binocular lenses and three objective lenses. The sample stage is directly beneath the objective lens. The light microscope sits on a tabletop. Part b: The dissecting microscope has binocular eyepieces, one objective lens, and light sources from both above and below the sample stage. There is room on the stage for a three-dimensional specimen.
(a) Most light microscopes used in a college biology lab can magnify cells up to approximately 400 times. (b) Dissecting microscopes have a lower magnification than light microscopes and are used to examine larger objects, such as tissues.

Electron microscopes

In contrast to light microscopes, electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. Not only does this allow for higher magnification and, thus, more detail ( [link] ), it also provides higher resolving power. Preparation of a specimen for viewing under an electron microscope will kill it; therefore, live cells cannot be viewed using this type of microscopy. In addition, the electron beam moves best in a vacuum, making it impossible to view living materials.

In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, rendering the details of cell surface characteristics by reflection. Cells and other structures are usually coated with a metal like gold. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam is transmitted through the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than are light microscopes.

Part a: Salmonella viewed through a light microscope appear as tiny purple dots. Part b: In this scanning electron micrograph, the bacteria appear as three-dimensional red ovals. The human cells are much larger with a complex, folded appearance. Some of the bacteria lie on the surfaces of the human cells, and some are squeezed between them.
(a) Salmonella bacteria are viewed with a light microscope. (b) This scanning electron micrograph shows Salmonella bacteria (in red) invading human cells. (credit a: modification of work by CDC, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Charles N. Farmer; credit b: modification of work by Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Careers in action


Have you ever heard of a medical test called a Pap smear ( [link] )? In this test, a doctor takes a small sample of cells from the uterine cervix of a patient and sends it to a medical lab where a cytotechnologist stains the cells and examines them for any changes that could indicate cervical cancer or a microbial infection.

Cytotechnologists ( cyto - = cell) are professionals who study cells through microscopic examinations and other laboratory tests. They are trained to determine which cellular changes are within normal limits or are abnormal. Their focus is not limited to cervical cells; they study cellular specimens that come from all organs. When they notice abnormalities, they consult a pathologist, who is a medical doctor who can make a clinical diagnosis.

Cytotechnologists play vital roles in saving people’s lives. When abnormalities are discovered early, a patient’s treatment can begin sooner, which usually increases the chances of successful treatment.

Both normal cells and cells infected with HPV have an irregular, round shape and a well-defined nucleus. The infected cells, however, are two to three times as large as uninfected cells, and some have two nuclei.
These uterine cervix cells, viewed through a light microscope, were obtained from a Pap smear. Normal cells are on the left. The cells on the right are infected with human papillomavirus. (credit: modification of work by Ed Uthman; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Cell theory

The microscopes we use today are far more complex than those used in the 1600s by Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch shopkeeper who had great skill in crafting lenses. Despite the limitations of his now-ancient lenses, van Leeuwenhoek observed the movements of protists (a type of single-celled organism) and sperm, which he collectively termed “animalcules.”

In a 1665 publication called Micrographia , experimental scientist Robert Hooke coined the term “cell” (from the Latin cella , meaning “small room”) for the box-like structures he observed when viewing cork tissue through a lens. In the 1670s, van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria and protozoa. Later advances in lenses and microscope construction enabled other scientists to see different components inside cells.

By the late 1830s, botanist Matthias Schleiden and zoologist Theodor Schwann were studying tissues and proposed the unified cell theory    , which states that all living things are composed of one or more cells, that the cell is the basic unit of life, and that all new cells arise from existing cells. These principles still stand today.

Section summary

A cell is the smallest unit of life. Most cells are so small that they cannot be viewed with the naked eye. Therefore, scientists must use microscopes to study cells. Electron microscopes provide higher magnification, higher resolution, and more detail than light microscopes. The unified cell theory states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells, the cell is the basic unit of life, and new cells arise from existing cells.

Questions & Answers

Introduction about quantum dots in nanotechnology
Praveena Reply
what does nano mean?
Anassong Reply
nano basically means 10^(-9). nanometer is a unit to measure length.
do you think it's worthwhile in the long term to study the effects and possibilities of nanotechnology on viral treatment?
Damian Reply
absolutely yes
how to know photocatalytic properties of tio2 nanoparticles...what to do now
Akash Reply
it is a goid question and i want to know the answer as well
characteristics of micro business
for teaching engĺish at school how nano technology help us
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
there is no specific books for beginners but there is book called principle of nanotechnology
what is fullerene does it is used to make bukky balls
Devang Reply
are you nano engineer ?
fullerene is a bucky ball aka Carbon 60 molecule. It was name by the architect Fuller. He design the geodesic dome. it resembles a soccer ball.
what is the actual application of fullerenes nowadays?
That is a great question Damian. best way to answer that question is to Google it. there are hundreds of applications for buck minister fullerenes, from medical to aerospace. you can also find plenty of research papers that will give you great detail on the potential applications of fullerenes.
what is the Synthesis, properties,and applications of carbon nano chemistry
Abhijith Reply
Mostly, they use nano carbon for electronics and for materials to be strengthened.
is Bucky paper clear?
carbon nanotubes has various application in fuel cells membrane, current research on cancer drug,and in electronics MEMS and NEMS etc
so some one know about replacing silicon atom with phosphorous in semiconductors device?
s. Reply
Yeah, it is a pain to say the least. You basically have to heat the substarte up to around 1000 degrees celcius then pass phosphene gas over top of it, which is explosive and toxic by the way, under very low pressure.
Do you know which machine is used to that process?
how to fabricate graphene ink ?
for screen printed electrodes ?
What is lattice structure?
s. Reply
of graphene you mean?
or in general
in general
Graphene has a hexagonal structure
On having this app for quite a bit time, Haven't realised there's a chat room in it.
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
what's the easiest and fastest way to the synthesize AgNP?
Damian Reply
types of nano material
abeetha Reply
I start with an easy one. carbon nanotubes woven into a long filament like a string
many many of nanotubes
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what is the function of carbon nanotubes?
I'm interested in nanotube
what is nanomaterials​ and their applications of sensors.
Ramkumar Reply
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