The limits of the light microscope

The magnification of a microscope is not the only factor that’s important when viewing cells. The detail that can be seen is also important.

The ability to see greater detail in an image depends on the resolution or resolving power. This is the ability to see two points as two points, rather than merged into one.

Think about a digital photo. It can be enlarged, but over a certain size, you won’t be able to see any more detail. It will just become blurry.

The resolution of a light microscope is around 0.2 μm, or 200 nm. This means that it cannot distinguish two points closer than 200 nm. One nm, or nanometre, is one billionth of a metre. This is written as:

\(\frac {1}{1~000~000~000}\) or in standard form as 1 × 10-9m.

The electron microscope

Electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of light rays.

There are two types of electron microscope:

  1. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) has a large field of view so can be used to examine the surface structure of specimens. SEMs are often used at lower magnifications.
  2. The transmission electron microscope (TEM) is used to examine thin slices or sections of cells or tissues.

TEMs have a maximum magnification of around ×1 000 000, but images can be enlarged beyond that photographically. The limit of resolution of the transmission electron microscope is now less than 1 nm.

The TEM has revealed structures in cells that are not visible with the light microscope.