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World's Largest Microscope Is Too Super-Sensitive Even For Human Hair

05/25/2012 02:49 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - A University of Victoria scientist's 10-year dream to get the world's most powerful microscope built has now come true, bringing the kinds of positive outcomes only "Star Trek" crew blasted by aliens were once privy to.

"Captain Kirk would ask, `How is he?' Bones would reply, `He's got 30 per cent internal bleeding. I'll have him patched up in half an hour.'," recounted Rodney Herring, the mechanical engineer who created the microscope.

"It's like that stuff. No cutting. That's where this technology is going."

The microscope is being installed at the university, and already, researchers around the world are vying to use.

The Japanese-made instrument will allow researchers to see things at a magnification up to 20 million times larger than the human eye can see.

That will mean scientists can see how cells move and function, allowing them to better understand diseases and ultimately lead to treatment.

"It's really endless what the machine can be used for," Herring said. "People in anthropology can look at tools that man has been using for thousands of years and be able see if it was iron or whether it came from North America or Russia or some other place."

The microscope's 50 lenses, electron beam and holography techniques mean scientists can see materials and their insides to a resolution that's smaller than an atom, beyond the nanoscale to the picoscale level. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, and a picometre is one-trillionth of a metre.

Besides being able to see atoms, researchers will also be able to manipulate them to create magnets in material used for electronics, for example, Herring said Friday.

The end result will be the development of new technologies in everything from computers to medicine and alternative energy to make devices that are "smaller, faster and better" and with larger memories, he said.

"Things that are slow today will be blindingly fast in the future."

"Initially you have to dream these things, you have to imagine them and then you have to build them."

The 4.5-metre microscope, called the Scanning Transmission Electron Holography Microscope, is so huge that users have to climb a stepladder to insert a sample through a tiny column before leaving the room to operate the machine remotely from an adjoining area.

Only teeny samples, which are a thousand times smaller than a human hair, can be viewed with the microscope that's so sensitive even a passing cloud could throw it off.

The microscope will be operational in the fall and is housed in its own special extra-tall room at the university, which will be registering potential users through a website.

"I already have people from Japan, the United States, quite a few from Italy and Germany and France who want to come here," Herring said. "I have people from Britain and from across Canada. We'll get a lot of people coming in to use it."

Herring is also building other machines, including a medical imaging device that can diagnose diseased tissue and treat it without surgery and monitor the treatment process for prostate and breast cancer patients.

Stephanie Willerth, a professor of mechanical engineering and medical sciences at the University of Victoria, studies embryonic stem cells and hopes to use the microscope to view cells and their DNA.

Currently, cells are broken apart and their DNA is chemically amplified before further processing to find the genes, introducing potential errors along the way outside a lab where she would have access to them, Willerth said.

Herring's microscope will allow her to view cells directly.

"You'd actually be looking at the actual event occurring instead of trying to figure it out. It's really interesting."

Elaine Humphries, a biologist who manages Herring's lab, said the new microscope would allow her to see sections of the brain and how nerves come together for people who had multiple sclerosis.

Even parts of a virus can be isolated on the machine to view contamination, she said.

"It's so cool."