Scotland’s highest resolution 3D microscope unveiled at Heriot-Watt University



The Edinburgh Super-Resolution Imaging Consortium (ESRIC), a joint initiative between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, has unveiled a new £1.2 M microscope to visualise and uncover structures just a few billionths of a metre in size inside living cells and organisms.

The only microscope of its type in Scotland, the new stimulated emission depletion (STED) 'nanoscope' (so-called because it 'sees' things on the nano rather than the micro-scale) creates images at resolutions below the diffraction limit. In traditional microscopy, resolution is limited by the diffraction of light. 

The new system can image in up to four colours simultaneously, allowing scientists to look at more than one gene, cell or structure at the same time. It will also create 3D visualisations with a sharper, more informative image than previous microscopes.

Seeing objects ten-times smaller than the most advanced light microscopes, researchers will also be able to visualise biological events and structural details in living cells in real-time for prolonged recording periods at these high resolutions. 

ESRIC was established to bring the development and application of super-resolution microscopy to the widest community of biomedical researchers, students and publics possible.

A centre of research excellence, ESRIC will use the new equipment to investigate cancer cell biology, human genetic disease, and autoimmune diseases including Multiple Sclerosis, while making the system available to global researchers from a range of specialities to study scientific questions relating to health and medicine, geology, biophysics, bioengineering, mathematics and neurobiology.

Professor Rory Duncan, Principal Investigator and Co-Director of ESRIC, explains: “ESRIC was established as an international and inter-disciplinary super-microscopy consortium allowing researchers from around the world to come together and make the best use of the resources and equipment we have to the wider benefit of society.

“While our previous system allowed researchers to visualise genes, cells or organisms in one colour and one dimension, it did not allow for the study of living dynamics. The addition of this new STED microscope will help scientists to observe movements in living cells as they happen - essential for understanding biological functions and applying these to our existing knowledge of the origins of many diseases.

“One of our current projects that will benefit from the new microscope uses mathematics to understand the movements of tiny packages of insulin inside cells. Better, faster and more detailed images of this process will help drive our understanding of how these packages move in diabetes.”

Professor Wendy Bickmore, Co-Director of ESRIC and Director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, University of Edinburgh, added: “The ability to visualise molecules in cells at such high spatial resolution, and the new capability to look at the relationship between different molecules simultaneously using different colours, provides an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the underlying molecular causes of human disease.”

Funding for the new microscope includes a £800,000 contribution from The Wellcome Trust and a major contribution from Leica Microsystems, the manufacturer of the STED system.

The work, prolific impacts and outreach of ESRIC was recently recognised with the Times Higher Education STEM Research Project of the Year Award.