Vesa Loitto and Karin Öllinger use microscopy to see small details in cells. Photo credit Kajsa Juslin The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in 2014 for discoveries that made super-resolution optical microscopes possible. Researchers at the Microscopy Unit in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences broke out into wild cheering when it was announced. At the time, just over 5 years ago, the desire to one day own such a microscope was planted in Vesa Loitto, director of the unit. Today it has become reality.
“We have acquired a STED microscope from SciLifeLab in Stockholm. These cost many millions of Swedish crowns new, but we only needed to pay for the cost of transport here, a tiny fraction of the purchase price. The light source, however, was broken. We were a bit worried for a while, until we managed to get a new one under the terms of an advantageous service agreement. A new multiphoton laser would have cost over a million crowns” says Vesa Loitto.Kjersti Tunströmer studies how blood clots form. Photo credit Kajsa Juslin
It had long been generally accepted that we would never be able to see the really tiny structures in our world, such as viruses and proteins, in a light microscope. The resolution limit was believed to be half of the wavelength of light, 0.2 micrometres. However, the super-resolution STED microscope allows scientists to see details with a resolution of 50 nanometres – smaller than one thousandth of the thickness of a human hair. Another huge advantage is that this technology allows them to image living cells. They can, for example, watch how individual blood platelets move and come together to form a blood clot, see what happens when a cell surrounds proteins and other biomolecules to absorb them, and follow how harmful proteins spread from one nerve cell to the next in Alzheimer’s disease.