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Microbiologists don't use microscopes very often. The reason is because a substantial proportion of modern microbiology research uses the tools of molecular biology, for which microscopes are not needed.

Ebola via Golding et al. (doi:10.1038/srep26516)Ebola via CG Golding et al. (doi:10.1038/srep26516)

When I told her that I wanted to major in microbiology, my best friend from childhood responded, "Are you sure you want to look in a microscope all day?"

But, as it turned out, a lot of microbiologists don't use microscopes very often. I was one of them. The reason is because a substantial proportion of modern microbiology research uses the tools of molecular biology, for which microscopes are not needed.

If my microbiology career had required the prolific use of microscopes, however, I would never have been satisfied with those miserable light microscopes and their pathetic 1,000x magnification. No, I would have insisted on going big: The electron microscope. These instruments, which can magnify objects 10 million times, produce breathtaking images (like this and this) and are widely used today in various applications.

One of those applications is in diagnostic microbiology, particularly if the microbe under investigation is rare or unknown to science. If a person comes down with a mysterious viral illness, for instance, microbiologists will be eager to get a good look at the bug with an electron microscope.

To create satisfactory images, electron microscopy requires time-consuming and often complicated sample preparation. Samples usually need to be dehydrated before imaging, but this can distort microbes and reduce image quality. Imaging hydrated samples, however, requires fancy equipment. Microscopists are in need of a solution.

A team of Canadian researchers believes it has found one. They have devised a preparation procedure that uses an ionic liquid (a.k.a. liquid salt) and takes merely 15 minutes. Importantly, their technique reduces microbial distortions and produces images that are every bit as good as the "gold standard" techniques. (Note: SEM = scanning electron microscopy, which is 3D; TEM = transmission electron microscopy, which is 2D.)

CG Golding et al. (doi:10.1038/srep26516) CG Golding et al. (doi:10.1038/srep26516)

The authors imaged two bacteria (Leptospira and Salmonella) and two viruses (Vaccinia and Ebola). The images from their ionic liquid technique are shown in the middle column.

Because their technique only takes 15 minutes, perhaps many electron microscopists will adopt it. I certainly hope so, anyway, because the internet can never have enough close-ups of microbial monsters.

Source: Christine G. Golding, Lindsey L. Lamboo, Daniel R. Beniac & Timothy F. Booth. "The scanning electron microscope in microbiology and diagnosis of infectious disease." Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 26516. Published online: 23-May-2016. doi:10.1038/srep26516