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Affordable Microscopes for Everyday Use

October 05, 2015

Merlots Under the Microscope

Wine can be a catalyst of microscopic and biological tales of fortune, or misfortune, as the case may be.  But while you are popping a cork, let me also pop these wine micro-wisdoms.   So check the vintage, raise a glass, and let’s see how wine looks under a microscope.

Wine micro-wisdoms #1- It takes two separate steps, with two separate yeasts to make a wine

According to the book Molecular Wine Biology,  it’s a two-step process to make a good wine.  Step 1 involves the yeast in primary fermentation; saccharomyces yeasts in an aerobic environment.  A very specific yeast is used with genetic markers to monitor that ensure development of the wine remains the same from batch to batch. This is where saccharomyces does 70% of her work to make a good wine and occurs within 5-7 days.  Yeast and air are both key ingredients to how saccharomyces reproduce at the proper rate.

Picture Source:

The second stage of development, or secondary fermentation, is an anaerobic process and lasts 2-3 weeks. Air exposure must be at a complete minimum for this process to work; as saccharomyces eats all the available sugars and nutrients.

Wine micro-wisdoms #2- Wine’s oldest cellar was found in Armenia 

A vintage not likely to be found by collectors, the earliest wine making supplies were found in Armenia and date back to over 6000 years ago. If you can imagine, there were humans 6000 years ago that were already harvesting micro-biology to human will! The wines did have a lot in common with the modern day wines, they used grapes that were nearly identical genetically to wine grapes we use today.

Wine micro-wisdoms #3- Today’s food preservation was a direct result of wine

In 1852, Napoleon III wanted to find a  cure for the dreaded “wine diseases”.  Wine diseases, particularly wine souring, were making wine unpalatable.   The Emperor commissioned Louis Pasteur to find a cause and solution to the unsavory wine problem. Lois Pasteur realized that there were specific micro-biology present in the wines that were affected by wine souring; and therefore created his famous process of applying heat and minimizing exposure to bacteria in the atmosphere now known as pasteurization.

Wine micro-wisdoms #4- Olive oil was used to prevent oxidation

When wine is exposed to oxygen for long periods of time, oxidation occurs. This process occurs as the tannins  are oxidized, producing hydrogen peroxide and the ethanol (the actual alcohol part of  the wine) is changed into acetaldehyde.  Prior to our uses of corks to resolve this issue, the Roman used olive oil as a fix for oxidation in wines.  In fact, the oldest known bottle of wine dates back from 325 A.D. and has a large film of olive oil to reduce the wine’s breakdown.

From the earliest known harnessing of microbes for the benefits of humans, to pasteurization, to olive oil, wine plays a pretty interesting role in microscopic and chemical applications today.  So if your of age, go ahead and open a bottle, grab a glass, let it breathe and enjoy…….responsibly, of course!

September 28, 2015

Compost Your Dead….Animals!

No matter if you keep a horse in your back yard or raise large scale livestock, one of the biggest struggles for those with large animals is mortality management.  Mortality is a normal part of raising livestock.  Even the most cautious and careful animal handler can lose an animal to predator attacks, complication in birthing or just old age.

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Wilson44691 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who has spent their life in the livestock industry, there are many complications when it comes to mortality management.  In my own case, we were very limited on our ways of handling the remains because of law requirements, high water tables, and the amount of space needed to bury animals; an issue for any sized operation.  There is also a public perception issue that living close to the urban interface further reduces options for livestock owners.

Enter Washington State University and their mortality composting program.  In 2008, a publication was released giving producers the step-by-step directions for composting mortalities.  Unlike burial, it has no affecting on ground water. Washington State University reported that within ten weeks of active composting, only sections of large bone remained from cow carcasses.  Furthermore, the amount of heat that was generated from the composting process reduced pathogens extensively.  Similar projects are found at Colorado State, Texas A&M, Iowa State, and more.

What’s responsible  for the breaking down of such huge amounts of body mass in a matter of weeks? The university has been using a combination of Bacteria, Actinomycetes, Fungi, Protozoa, and rotifers. Not surprising because this is the same list of players that are responsible for the soil systems that we need for life. During the second stage of composting, the thermophilic stage, temperatures can rise as high as 55 degrees Celsius; which can kill most pathogens.  The biggest player of this is bacteria found in the family of Bacillus and Thermus.

Diane Montpetit

Thermus Bacteria by Diane Montpetit

Cornell University is now working on using the same process to compost wildlife road kill.  With over 25,000 wildlife deaths a year as a result of auto collisions, the composting process can allow for easier and faster cleanup while killing most pathogens that can affect human health.

After the decomposition is complete, the remaining compost can be used in agricultural practices as soil amendments to fertilized and develop lands. The compost is devoid of most pathogens, has no smell (thanks to the Actinomycetes) and is high in soil-favored bacteria, protozoa, and fungi.

The biggest challenge? In 1999, the State of New Jersey was faced with a huge problem when a Blue Whale washed up on their shores.  Taking quick action, the state worked with the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, NY to compost the whale and, several months later, were able to retrieve the skeleton for display.  After all, it’s the same process that happens to us on burial.



Editor’s Note: Bacteria are hard to see under a light microscope unless very experienced and using a high quality microscope with excellent resolution. Try the Euromex iScope

September 28, 2015

Battling Bad Bacteria


Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Bacteria.jpg

Bacteria has been infecting the news lately. From flesh eating bacteria in Florida to the deadly Legionnaires’ Outbreak in New York, it seems as though Bacteria has some pretty bad PR. Bacteria, however, also helps us digest, is a primary ingredient in cheese production, helps with crop management and may be the future of green energy. However, bad bacteria, is what we want to focus on today. The kind that we wish we were killing when we use 99.9% effective hand sanitizer. Science Daily recently posted two articles that have interesting perspectives at how Bacteria affect our bodies and the future for killing bacteria.

First, Ohio State University. The Buckeyes have studied how efficient Bacteria are in attacking our human bodies. An article in Science, in July this year, outlined the deadly patterns of certain bacteria in their war on the human body. The Bacteria in the study attacked certain protein actin causing them to turn toxic to our immune systems. This process has allowed many of the most notorious diseases to spread faster and be harder to cure: Cholera, Septicemia, and similar diseases are affecting the human body by making the proteins “defect” against their own body.  According to Johnson et. al in Molecular Biology of the Cell 5th Edition, actin could be the key to muscular diseases, and some functions of the heart. These internal assaults makes it harder for the immune system to combat bacteria because they reduce the level of contact with the immune system. Read more detail in the study at Bacteria Article.

As has been widely publicized, an increasing number of bacteria are becoming antibiotic-resistant, a problem of huge consequences especially in hospitals where bacteria are rife. Researchers at Rice University are working to identify the mutations that lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The hope is by identifying the routes of mutations, they can be counter-acted faster and allow for continued use of certain antibiotics that would otherwise be deemed ineffective. Using a bacteria and antibiotic combination that is rarely combined, Rice researchers were able to predict the Horizontal Gene Transfer that was used by the bacteria to evolve a resistance to certain drugs. Not only was a single bacterium surviving to become resistant; it was able to take its successful genome and transfer it on to other bacteria cells. This increased the rate of observation of resistant bacteria in the samples beyond a simple paternal exchange of genetic information; the bacteria parents were talking to each other.

Such genetic recoding continues as we look how other bacteria (such as the “good” bacteria, Bacillus subtilis) are redesigning their genetics with Programmed cell death (PCD) in bacteria. This PCD pass from the “mother cell” and serves to aid development, advance genetic variations, and decrease unfavorable mutations. These could be good in the case of yeasts as PCD could be favorable to populations; however, unfavorable in other situations. According to the Author: The concept of programmed death in bacteria prompts us to reexamine a broad range of important yet poorly understood phenomena in the life of microbial cells, such as the mechanism of killing by antibiotics, the role of a low mutation rate, death and survival at stationary state, the nature of persistence, and the related issues of population survival and biofilm resilience. These studies only go to show the world of micro biology is far from being fully understood. We are finding more ways daily how bacteria are attacking us, how it is evolving around antibiotics, and even systematically programming their cell deaths themselves along their own genetic patterns.

We can only hope that we can work harder to think big, by studying small.

August 18, 2015

New, Oldest Flowering Plant

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

New analysis of a fossilized plant found in Central Spain and the Pyrenee Mountains indicate that it may be the world’s first known flowering plant. At 125-130 million years old, Montsechia vidalii dates back to the start of the Cretaceous Period when feathered dinosaurs roamed Earth.

Previously, the oldest known flowering plant was Archeafructus sinensis, found in Liaoning province, China and which dates from 125 million years ago. Like Archeafructus sinensis, Montsechia vidalii grew underwater in shallow lakes and appears to have no roots or petals and only one seed per flower. Its leaves formed either in a spiral or opposite one another.

To get to the fossilized plant, study the ancient plant, Dilcher and his team painstakingly dissolved the limestone around more than 1000 fossils on a “drop-by-drop basis”. The resulting plant fragments were then examined under both light microscopes and scanning electron microscopes.

The plant has been known for years. First discovered over 100 years ago, Dilcher reports that it was misdiagnosed because it “possesses no obvious flower parts, such as petals or nectar-producing structures for attracting insects, and lives out its entire life cycle under water.”

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

Montsechia vidalii. Photograph Gomez et al/PNAS

This is what makes it interesting. As Dilcher pointed out, at that time animals had not developed any role in dispersing seeds. How the plants were fertilized and reproduced may help us understand and mitigate against the risk of pollinator failure in the modern day. Dilcher thinks the plant had separate male and female flowers. The seeds may have been released straight into the water and then floated away to fertilize another plant.

“We need to understand as much as we can about flowering plant evolution because right now we’re facing a world crisis.” Says Dilcher. Most present-day plants require animal pollinators and of course, bees, which are critical, food crop pollinators are declining in Europe and the US.

“This plant shows us where it all began,” says Dilcher. “If we know more about their evolution, we might come across alternative pollinators that are hidden out of sight today but played a role in the past that we could encourage again.”

Journal Reference:

  1. David L. Dilcherd et al. Montsechia, an ancient aquatic angiosperm.PNAS, August 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509241112
August 17, 2015

Fertile Fungus that’s Saving the World

Mycorrhizal Image

Mycorrhizal Image: Courtesy of Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). 2000. Soil Biology Primer. Rev. ed. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Let’s talk about fungus. Fungus is more than mold in your bathroom, or yeasts in your breads; fungus plays an ever expanding role on global ecosystems and agriculture.  Cambridge University released a study this May that shows fungus may reduce water eutrophication and increase crop yields.

Within soils are a myriad of microscopic biology. One family of microscopic organisms, mycorrhizae, is a symbiotic soil fungi that attaches itself to vascular roots of plants all across the world.  The mycorrhizae was first recognized in the mid-19th century; however, scientists are still learning how they react with crops and wildland ecology.

Rice plants that were “colonized” with mycorrhizae triggered genetic expressions to change in the rice plants, as a result of which both the root mass and Phosphorus intake increased up to 70%-100%.  Why is this important?  Because of 16 essential nutrients that are needed for plants, Phosphorus (along with Nitrogen), is one of the most critical and due to its importance, it is characterized as a macro-nutrient.  Phosphorus is a component of the photosynthesis proteins and is used by the plant for cell division and new tissue development. In other words – growth.

Phosphorus, however, is one of the most detrimental nutrients to the environment when applied incorrectly.   It is mined heavily for agricultural uses and, via run-off, it is one of the leading causes of water pollution. The heavy concentration of nitrogen and phosphorous in run-off causes eutrophication of rivers and lakes and is the leading cause of resulting algae blooms, hypoxia and die-off all affected aquatic life. We have all seen pictures of the thousands of dead fish floating under such conditions.

By creating a more efficient soil system with mycorrhizae, the hope is that less applied phosphorous will be needed with a corresponding slower depletion rate of Phosphorous through mining and less environmental pollution via run-off.

Redwood Mycorrhizae

Redwood Saplings without and with Mycorrhizae: Courtesy of M. Amaranthus, USDA

The Cambridge researchers plan to inoculate agricultural land with mycorrhizae with a view to increasing crop efficiency of the top crops such as rice, wheat and corn.  The idea is to improve yields with less need for applied phosphorous and ultimately to reduce famine in areas where mycorrhizae have been depleted or where mycorrhizae can be utilized for higher crop efficiency. In particular, mycorrhizae might help sustain crops in arid regions, which is an issue that takes on greater significance with changing global rain patterns.

Not bad for a fungus? A significant contributor toward improved crop yields, a possible solution to marginal areas of agriculture AND an environmental savior for that much-overlooked part of the world….water.

Want to see how mycorrhizae looks in a microscope?  Check out this guide on how to identify and view them in stereo microscopes here.  You will need a stereo dissecting microscope, which can be found here at

Learn more about the Cambridge Study on Cambridge’s Website at:

March 05, 2014


At we often say that the technology of light microscopes has not changed much over the past 500 years. Strictly speaking, this is no longer true. Scientists at Hokkaido University in Japan have found a way to use ordinary light to detect objects smaller than the limit of traditional light microscopes. Up until now, light microscopes have been limited by the Rayleigh diffraction limit, which states that light cannot be used to resolve a structure smaller than its own wavelength. Since the shortest wavelength of visible light is a few hundred nanometers, scientists have turned to X-Rays and electron microscopes in order to resolve smaller elements.

However, for some time scientists have suspected that a weird effect of quantum mechanics known as entanglement might overcome the Rayleigh limit and the Hokkaido team have done just that. Einstein referred to Entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”. It involves two photons in opposite polarization states that become entangled so that even when separated by infinitely large distances (think light years), changes to one are reflected in the other. Using such entangled photons, the microscope visualizes much smaller structures than could be achieved with ordinary light.

In this case, the scientists generated entangled photons by converting a laser beam into pairs of photons that were in opposite polarization states at the same time (superposed particles). The physicists used special nonlinear crystals to achieve this superposition and then focused the entangled photons on two adjacent spots on a flat glass plate with a Q-shaped pattern made in relief on the plate’s surface. This pattern is only 17 nanometers higher than the rest of the plate and almost impossible to see with a standard optical microscope. However using the entangled pairs, the lettering was completely visible and 1.35 times sharper (signal-to-noise ratio) than the standard quantum limit.


Inevitably, obtaining an image was not as simple as using an eyepiece. In this case, the team generated the image electronically by measuring the difference in optical path length between the two beams, a difference that is caused by the marginally thicker glass where the letter rises up from the surrounding surface. The scientists could not measure this directly, so they used the interference pattern of both beams as they passed through the glass. Since each of the entangled protons provides information about the other, the process is more efficient and results in a sharper image.

The major drawback to the process is that it took almost a full day for the microscope to generate actual images so a key improvement for commercial development is the ability to speed image development. However, the team has proven that the refractive index of light microscopes can be enhanced which could have a major beneficial impact on Life Sciences and other disciplines such as cryptography. Currently, in order to observe transparent organisms in such detail, X-Rays or electron microscopes are required. Both are expensive while X-Rays cause damage to living cells. Since this entangled photons approach uses simple lasers with infrared rays, it offers both an inexpensive and harmless solution to future generations.

[Research paper: 10.1038/ncomms3426 – “An entanglement-enhanced microscope”; open-access PDF]

February 05, 2014

Snow under the Microscope


For much of the Northeast US, the winter snow has arrived with a vengeance. Schools are closed. Kids are thrilled, but stir crazy and parents are praying for relief. There is only so much sledding you can do and who plays in snow without getting cold and wet? So why not take a closer look?

Snowflakes are not only magical in drifts, but also as individual crystals. With a little bit of patience and a low power microscope, you can successfully engage your kids in a worthwhile activity that will produce some spectacular images. Snowflakes start as water vapor that is supercooled below freezing. It is not frozen rain, which we know as sleet. Rather the water vapor freezes round a particle of dust and grows from there as additional water vapor attaches. The resulting crystals have an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes largely depending on the temperature and humidity outside. In addition, time and the distance additional water vapor has to travel to reach the crystal affects the level of complexity of an individual snowflake.

These four variables: temperature, humidity time and distance are responsible for the fact that every snow crystal is unique although the full science behind it is still a mystery. Interestingly though, snow crystals do fall into approximately 35 different categories that range from the most common, simple hexagonal prism to some extremely complex shapes. The dryer the air (low humidity), typically the simpler the shape. As they grow through a process known as branching, they become more complex

Now, it’s time to try your hand at viewing or photographing a snowflake and an individual snow crystal. You will need a low power microscope (with or without a microscope camera) or a handheld digital microscope. Leave it in the garage so it gets suitably cold although ensure that it is not exposed to any condensation. Similarly, leave a glass slide, small artist’s paint brush and a 3×1” piece of dark-colored, construction paper in the garage or outside where they are protected from the elements. In other words, you want them cold!

Now wrap up warm. First, look at an entire snowflake. Hold the construction paper out in the snow or carefully place a sample of snow on to the paper. Make sure that you keep the underside of the paper dry as you do not want to get your microscope wet. Now quickly place the paper under the microscope and focus it. View it at different magnifications and note the level of detail that you see.

Now take the paint brush and carefully, lift a single flake on to the glass slide Place it quickly, but carefully under the microscope and focus in on the individual crystal. Take a quick picture and try to note its shape and branching characteristics.


You can achieve good results with any low power microscope or digital microscope.  You should also try different lighting. For example, use a different color filter for more definition or try a back light. For more sophisticated use, we recommend an OCS digital system that includes a microscope camera with a monocular zoom lens.

In any event, it is a rewarding project that will keep your kids happy outside – and that’s the main thing!

November 27, 2013

Exploring Faces in Mold

Mold face in profile

This morning, I had a craving for pâté on toast. Weird maybe, but not as weird as what I found on the pâté, which has been sitting in the refrigerator too long. Mold! I though it would be fun to see what it looks like under one of our new Explorer handheld digital microscopes and before I knew it, I was seeing strange faces in the images.

These images were taken using an Explorer Pro 1 which includes 1.3MP resolution and 10x-50x, 200x variable magnification. It took all of a few seconds to set up and I have been dodging ‘real work’ while I played with it. But it is the day before Thanksgiving, after all!

That’s what I like about these Explorer microscopes. They are easy and fun to use while you can explore all sorts of items around your house and garden.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may your turkey be absent any sign of mold.

Mold face close-up

Dinosaur Face

Elephant Man Face


November 21, 2013

Tears under a Microscope

Basal tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Occasionally…. very occasionally amid the deafening ‘noise’ of irrelevant blogs, tweets and posts, I stumble across a real gem, a testament to the power of human curiosity and creativity. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s microscopic study, The Topography of Tears is one such gem.

Inspired by her own “period of personal change, loss and copious tears”, Fisher was curious about whether tears of grief looked different from tears of joy and laughter. Not content with just being curious, she photographed 100 tears using a standard compound microscope. Many were her own tears. Some were from friends and at least one from a baby. Her conclusions were not just scientifically interesting, but poetic; her writing is as good as her photographs and it is worth reading her description of the project.

Laughing tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

Science divides tears into three categories:

  • Physic tears such as grief and joy, which are triggered by extreme emotions
  • Basal tears which the eye releases continuously in tiny quantities as a corneal lubricant
  • Reflex tears in response to irritants such as onion vapors and dust.

As most people know, tears are in essence salt water, but they also contain a variety of oils, enzymes and antibodies. Physic tears, for example, contain hormones such as prolactin (associated with milk production) and the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin which acts as a natural painkiller when the body is under stress.

These different molecules account for some of the differences that Fisher photographed. In addition, the circumstances and setting of how the tear evaporates determines the shape and formation of the salt crystals so that two identical tears can look entirely different close up.

So much for the science!

For Fisher, tears are more poetic and “evoke a sense of place, like aerial views of emotional terrain……..a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series is alike an ephemeral atlas”. Like Fibonacci numbers, Fisher sees a repetitive pattern in tears similar to the earth’s topography. ” I marvel….how the patterning of nature seems so consistent, regardless of scale. Patterns of erosion etched in to the earth over millions of years may look quite similar to the branched crystalline tears of an evaporated tear”.

Onion tear, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

“It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean. “

Tears of grief, photo Rose-Lynn Fisher, courtesy of the artist and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica CA

What I particularly admire is that Fisher translated what started as idle curiosity into substantive action with  a result that is as beautiful as it is interesting. The idea is ingenious, but the execution is relatively simple, easily within the realm of the average family.

I would encourage you to try this experiment at home and send us your resulting images. After all, the Holidays is a time of extreme emotions all round, when tears of joy and grief abound.

November 07, 2013

Mount Toba – Super Volcano

The Jakarta Times reported, yesterday that geologists fear that Mount Toba, on Sumatra may erupt again as a super volcano. Toba has already accounted for the largest known earthquake in the last 2 million years when it spewed out more than 2,500 cubic kilometers…that’s kilometers, not meters….of magma and which ultimately resulted in the formation of  the world’s largest quaternary caldera’s (35 x 100 km) that is now Lake Toba.

The scientists, who include Craig A. Chesner of Eastern Illinois University have identified a huge magma chamber at a depth between 20-100 kilometers. The concern is that one of the frequent earthquakes in the region could set off an eruption, which would have potentially devestating consequences.

Anau Krakatau 2009 - Photo: Iris Karinkanta

Indonesia consists of more than 13,000 islands, spread over an area the size of the United States. It has the greatest number and density of active volcanoes with 129 being actively monitored by scientists. Most volcanoes in Indonesia stretch from NW Sumatra (including Mount Toba), to the Banda Sea and are largely the result of the subduction of the Indian Ocean crust beneath the Asian tectonic plate.  As if this were not enough, there are other subductions that make the picture more complex and….more dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, it also has the largest number of historically active volcanoes (76), and the second largest number of dated eruptions (1,171)  exceeded marginally by Japan (1,274).  Indonesian eruptions have also caused the highest number of fatalities, damage to arable land, mudflows, tsunamis, domes, and pyroclastic flows. 80% of such dated eruptions have erupted since 1900 although such analysis only stretches back to the 15th century!

Volcanic Rocks, Courtesy of

Two of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in recent history include the devestating eruption of Tambora in 1815 which altered the world’s weather to such an extent that, in Europe, 1816 became known as ‘the year without summer’. More famous was the  disastrous eruption of Krakatau in 1883, not so much due to the magnitude of the eruption as to the magnitude of the tsunamis. Tsunamis accounted for 30-40,000 lives and secured Krakatau’s place in the collective memory of the world.

All of these volcanic eruptions create igneous rocks of one kind or another. Under a microscope, they can help tell the story of what happened and when while also presenting a glorious array of colors and crystals. Polarizing microscopes are best used for examining such rock specimens but surface textures an colors can be viewed with our new Explorer Series Rock Hound packages.

Explorer Pro Rock Hound Microscope Package

October 25, 2013



In the midst of researching a blog for Scientific American on photomicrography, I stumbled across this innovative exhibition of Microscopy at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Created by the Institute for Genomic Biology using Zeiss confocal microscopes, the exhibits address challenges facing humanity in the areas of health, agriculture, energy and the environment.

The exhibition is expected to run over the next year and includes two ten foot banners and ten pictures located past Security in Concourse A.

“Art is a really cool way to learn and jump start conversations about research,” said Kathryn Faith Coulter, the institute’s multimedia design specialist and the exhibition’s managing artist. “By sparking a natural curiosity through these vibrant images, we hope people will discover how the research conducted at the University of Illinois relates to their families, friends and communities.”

“This exhibit includes images from a variety of scientific disciplines, from coral polyps to kidney stones and human colon cancer cells,” said Glenn Fried, the director of Core Facilities at the institute. “The images represent much more than art. They represent scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that will impact how we treat human diseases, produce abundant food and fuel a technologically driven society.”

This exhibit was made possible in part by the Chicago Department of Aviation. Some images from the Art of Science 3.0 exhibit are also on display at the I-Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

August 28, 2013



Microscopic view of cicada killer head

Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp

Danny brought in this beauty, last week and we took the opportunity to snap a few images under various microscopes.  It looks intimidating, but is harmless in spite of the females having a large stinger. It is an Eastern Cicada Killer wasp, which exists to cull some of the annual cicada population. The female uses her stinger to paralyze a cicada prior to flying it back to her nest which is an amazing sight since the cicada is typically significantly larger than the wasp itself. As a result, she hauls it up a tree and then launches herself off towards her burrow, often repeating this laborious process several times in order to get there. Each male egg gets one cicada and each female at least two cicadas. Unsurprisingly, the female wasps are larger than the males.

Cicada Killer Burrow

You can always identify cicada killer wasps not only due to their size (up to two inches), but due to their burrows which always have a mound of earth outside along with a characteristic trench running through it to the hole. And there will be lots of them, too…….thousands at our last house!

Leg Spines

As you can see, up close under a microscope, they are beautiful. The spines on their legs serve to help the females dig their burrows. They use their powerful jaws to loosen the soil and then excavate the soil using their legs. Hence the mound outside although they also use excavated earth to seal their egg chambers.

We used a Dino-Lite AM4113T to view this one as well as one of our new Explorer Pro digital microscopes that we will be launching soon.

August 27, 2013


Engorged nymph deer ticks

Insects seem to be a perennial favorite of my blogs including ticks so how could I resist posting on these disgusting examples?! Rhonda is responsible for bringing these guys to work, but in case you are wondering…… she picked them off her dog and put them in a Zip Lock bag. We could see dozens of them inside the bag and when examined under a digital microscope, we could see them  all crawling around.

You can see quite clearly how engorged the two ticks on the right have become after a good feeding on dog’s blood. The other one, below has not yet started its blood meal so it has yet to engorge itself.

Nymph deer tick - unengorged

Ticks have only one blood meal each year, but they take their time when they do or, at least, the females do. These are nymph ticks. In their nymph state both males and females have a good blood meal. Next year, only the females have a really big blood meal. Most of the adult males eat sparingly, which is why it is important to know the difference between male and female ticks. Female ticks spend more time eating and so have more time to transmit the bacterium.  Females typically have reddish orange coloring. Males have minimal if any coloring beyond black. However, I don’t think we will be adding this lot to our collection of insects in the office. Black widow spiders and rhino beetles are worth keeping, but ticks….I think not! The ticks were viewed under our new Explorer Digital Microscopes which we will launch soon.

August 26, 2013

Birth of the Electron Microscope Part 3: The Scan

The creation of the transmission electron microscope (TEM) was a revolution in the field of microscopy; for the first time, it allowed humans to see things that were too small for traditional light-based microscopes to resolve, such as individual cells and large atomic molecules, by exposing samples to a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. However, the TEM had limitations of its own; it could only resolve an image if the sample was thin enough for electrons to pass through, so biological samples had to be preserved and sliced up, destroying any potential for viewing the minute changes in a living organism and making it impossible to view a complete image of the specimen. TEM also suffered from diffraction issues, as the electron beam could only resolve to a certain magnification level before the electrons scattered too much to form a definite image.

Shortly after the TEM’s 1931 debut, a Russian scientist named Manfred von Ardenne invented a true electron-based microscope that worked on a slightly different principle, and patented the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in 1937. This machine finally enabled scientists to see complete specimens in high detail, and resolve three-dimensional shapes. Instead of relying on a beam of electrons to carry the image away from the specimen, the scanning electron microscope works by scanning the beam across the specimen in a series of rectangular areas. This technique is known as raster scanning, and it is common in computer graphics; it’s how printers create images on paper, and how older CRT televisions created their images. When an SEM scans a specimen, the electron beam loses energy; this energy is converted into heat, scattered electrons, X-rays, and light emission. The SEM’s lenses can detect this energy, and it maps these signals into an image based on where the electron beam was located when it lost that particular amount of energy. By scanning in this manner, an SEM can resolve specimens as three-dimensional shapes.

The specimens in an SEM must be electrically conductive, in order to attract the electrons in the first place. While metals require very little preparation, non-conductive specimens must be coated with a very thin layer of gold, platinum, or tungsten. The SEM uses an electron gun much like the TEM, and uses a tiny cathode of tungsten at its tip. The SEM also requires the specimen to sit in a vacuum, in order to prevent interference from artifically disrupting the electron beam.

There are other types of electron microscopes, but the SEM was a major breakthrough because it allowed researchers to capture minute details of things like a house fly’s eye, a snowflake, or an ant’s head. Special environmental SEMs can observe samples that are in low-pressure environments (rather than complete vacuums) and do not require biological materials to be coated in gold. It is highly useful for seeing biological specimens, even scanning still-living insects.

June 14, 2013

Jurassic Park Menace

The movie Jurassic Park gave us all a thrilling look into the world of dinosaurs, some of the largest creatures to walk the Earth. The ingenious storyline brings them back to life with a little help from a miniature supporting actor whom every one of us has already met, the ordinary mosquito.

Mosquito under a microscope

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Since its appearance on the planet 100 million years ago, the mosquito has diversified into 3,000 very different species. There are about 170 different kinds of mosquitoes in North America alone, most of which (or so it may seem) can be found right outside your tent at summer camp.

On a more serious note, these very unwelcome pests and their irritating bites are not to be taken lightly. They carry a parasite known as Plasmodium, which causes malaria in millions and millions of humans. According to the World Health Organization, there were about 219 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2010 and an estimated 660,000 deaths, more than 90% of which occurred in Africa.

Here in the States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that mosquitoes cause 1,500 new cases of Malaria each year, along with several types of encephalitis and West Nile virus. Malaria symptoms tend to make their appearance 9-12 days after a person has been infected. First signs include fever, headache, chills and vomiting, symptoms very similar to the common Flu virus. This can make early detection a challenge.

Malaria can, however, be easily identified with a compound microscope like the Omano OM36 or OM88. The gold standard for malaria identification rests in the laboratory, where testing of a patient’s blood smear can yield timely and life-saving diagnostic information. The technique involves 1000X examination of a thick or thin blood smear which has been stained with a Romanovsky stain such as Giemsa. Infected red blood cells will show the telltale presence of darkly-spotted Plasmodium parasites.

Image Credit: National Institute of Health

Fortunately there are a number of steps we can take to avoid the risk of mosquito-borne diseases and some of the more effective methods involve working directly with Mother Nature herself. First, try to eliminate areas where mosquitoes lay their eggs, like puddles, old tires, children’s play pools, rain gutters and mud puddles. Refresh your bird baths, wading pools and pet drinking dishes at least once a week. For those backyard lily ponds or water gardens, consider using a naturally occurring bacterium like BT (bacillus thuringiensis). Found in most garden centers, BT is nontoxic to people and fish, yet kills mosquito larvae on contact.

As for protecting yourself, it helps to keep in mind that 100 million years of evolution have turned the mosquito into an excellent blood-hunter. They instinctively home in on areas of the body where your skin is thin and blood vessels are close to the surface. Which means your uncovered, untreated ears, neck, ankles, arms and wrists act like ringing dinner bells.

You can swiftly silence those bells by covering up in loose-fitting light-colored clothing or applying herb-based treatments. Lemon eucalyptus, for example, is rated by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the best choices for protection against West Nile virus. Just remember, even though the mosquito may have out-lived the dinosaurs, with a bit of planning you can minimize their intrusion in your outdoor activities this summer.