The Microscope and modern-day fight against viruses: A love-hate relationship

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History of microscopes and its use in the fight against viruses.

To quote the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big.”

Under the lenses father-and-son Hans and Zacharias Janssen had crafted, the world was introduced to another, smaller world underneath. Through it, Robert Hooke was able to publish his important work on microscopy, the Micrographia. Marcello Malphigi validated William Harvey’s discovery of how blood circulates. And, much later, Anton van Leeuwenhoek would be known as the Father of Microbiology with his clear-cut illustrations of microorganisms.  

Fast forward to today, microscopes continue to make discoveries, many life-saving. Vaccines for diseases, which then caused pandemics, started with a sample on a glass slip and magnified millions of times. The world is currently in one, so it’s been a welcome relief for many to see coronavirus vaccines finding their way into people’s immune systems.

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In this age, however, not all can be simply convinced with a look-see through the electron or stereo microscope. Way before the pandemic, there’d be strong opposition to the discoveries made under the microscope. It has only grown stronger with social media, which has made spreading disinformation much easier.

And, so, the microscope has found itself at the forefront of fighting against groundless, and sometimes insane, claims. As the microscope aims to combat disinformation by making discoveries, the likes of New York Microscope Company aim to do the same by making sure the microscope is up to the task.

Electron Microscope: The Next Step

The conventional microscope had opened the doors to the deep world of microorganisms. For Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska, they wanted to go deeper. Apart from bacteria, they wanted a look into the atom—the building block of all matter. This resulted in the debut of the electron microscope, which uses electrons to improve image resolution for specimens as small as 10nm (nanometers). 

Today, these are rookie numbers; electron microscopes are capable of clear resolutions for as small as 50pm (picometers). Putting that into perspective, if the first electron microscope allowed you to see an atom, its modern grandchildren allow you to see what’s inside that atom.

The key to the effectiveness of the electron microscope is already in its name—the electrons. If the conventional microscope uses light waves, the electron microscope instead exposes the sample in a beam of electrons. Since electrons don’t travel far in air, the chamber where the specimen goes must maintain vacuum conditions. Being small enough to travel across the specimen’s surface, the electrons return with vivid imagery of the smallest organic or inorganic matter.

It’s easy to see just how much of a boon they are in the medical field. Electron microscopes have the power and resolution to see how immune cells react to foreign bodies in real-time. These tools have earned their place in laboratories, where vaccines and other preparations are made.

The Electron Microscope’s Kill Count

Listing the instances electron microscopes have averted or mitigated outbreaks would be entirely its own story for another article. For the sake of understanding just how vital their role is, here are several examples:

  • 1948: Made diagnosis between smallpox and chickenpox significantly easier. Back then, the only way to discern one from the other is to let the disease thrive until the later stages.
  • 1972: Discovered norovirus, a major agent in viral gastroenteritis. It’s often known as the winter vomiting bug after its symptoms that include non-bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
  • 1976: Identified the agent responsible for the first outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire and Southern Sudan in Africa. Subsequent outbreaks in Zaire had since recorded lower figures.
  • 1999: Discovered the polyomavirus responsible for trichodysplasia spinulosa, which had resulted in a patient’s strange skin infection.
  • 2003: Identified the agent responsible for the outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S. Reports say the agent was carried by a shipment of animals from Ghana offloaded in Texas.

Had electron microscopes not been around to make lifesaving discoveries, the fatality rate for these diseases would’ve been much higher. It’s still the case in the current pandemic. With information in hand, it falls to scientists themselves to develop measures to mitigate the risk to the population, if not eliminate entirely.

Final Words

As the world waits for a reprieve from the pandemic, it’s important to be reminded of the struggles of science in hastening that reprieve’s arrival. The contributions of countless pioneers that shaped the microscope to its current form are also worth remembering. Of course, practice good hygiene and social distancing while doing so.

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