Life Sciences Under the Microscope

Histology and Cell Biology

Microscopy plays a critical role in a majority of life sciences.

Microscopes have contributed significantly in the fields of cell biology and histology where great discoveries have been made over the years. The discovery of blood cells in the human body paved the way for advanced studies in cell biology.

Early discovery of genes involved in human development by Edward Lewis, Christine Nusslein and Eric Wieschaus in 1995 is a clear demonstration of the importance of microscopes in the life sciences.  

The biological systems are composed of vast complexities, which can be better understood though the use of microscopes. A microscope allows scientists to view detailed relationships between the structures and functions at different levels of resolution.  

Microscopes have continued to be improved since they were first invented and used by early scientists like Anthony Leeuwenhoek to observe bacteria, yeast and blood cells. 

columnar epithelium cells

Epithelium columnar cells at 100x magnification

Advances in Microscopy

When discussing microscopy the compound light microscope is the most popular and usually brings back memories of biology classes in the lab. Also, the stereo microscope can be used in the life sciences to view large samples or materials. 

The basic premise is that the microscope is used to greatly magnify objects/specimens.  This hasn't changed but instead has become increasingly more powerful and with various microscopy imaging techniques employed to make certain types of observations.

In biology, Cryo electron microscopy has become an important tool in determination of the 3D structure of the complexes of macromolecules at the subnanometer resolution. Moreover, it has been used to observe helical as well as 2D crystalline specimens.

These microscopes have also been used to achieve near-atomic resolution, which have been instrumental in the study of biological functions of different molecules in atomic detail. 

With the combination of a number of techniques such as X-ray crystallography, microscopy has also been able to achieve greater precision, which has been used as a phasing model to solve crystallographic structures of a variety of macromolecules.

See also:  Cryo-Electron Tomography


In histology, microscopy is used to study fine details of biological cells and tissues. Microscopy finds a wide range of use in autopsy, diagnosis for treatment and education just to mention a few.

Histology, which is the microscopic study of tissues, would not be possible without the use of microscopes.  A histologist will be able to learn valuable information with regards to the functional morphology of both human beings and animal. This helps with important discoveries concerning the cells and body systems. See Histology Slides.

The importance of microscopes in life sciences can never be overestimated. Following the discovery of blood cells among other microorganisms, many other discoveries were made through the use of advanced instruments.

Some of the other discoveries made include:

  • Cell division by Walther Flemming (1879)
  • Krebs Cycle by Hans Krebs (1937)
  • Neurotransmission- these was a series of discoveries made between the late 19th century and 20th century
  • Photosynthesis and cellular respiration by Jan Ingenhousz in the 1770s

Many other discoveries have been made since the 1670s and have contributed significantly in a variety of studies that have seen major advancements in the treatment of diseases and the development of cures.

It is now possible to study diseases and how they progress within the human body so as to better understand how to treat them.  

Due to the many applications, data used in cell biology has transformed significantly from non-quantitative representative observations in the fixed cells to high-throughput quantitative data in the living cells.

Different Microscopy Techniques in Life Sciences

Brightfield Microscopy - the most elementary microscopy technique but important to understand and apply correctly. 

Oil Immersion Microscopy - when used properly increases the refractive index of a sample/specimen. With only a few disadvantages, slides prepared with oil immersion techniques work best under higher magnification where oils increase refraction despite short focal lengths. 

Confocal Microscope - check out how image details can be viewed through state of the art technology and lasers are impossible to view using a conventional microscope. 

Phase Contrast Microscope - learn about an entire new world that has opened up in the field of microscopy. Once limited to bright field illumination phase contrast observation is now a standard feature on almost all modern microscopes. 

Fluorescence Microscope - study the most used microscope in medical/biological fields which uses high powered light waves to provide unique image viewing options.

Dark Field Microscope - learn more about how when the light source is blocked off, light scatters as it hits the specimen and is then able to reveal details otherwise difficult to see. 

Polarizing Microscope - discover its use in a wide range of applications in fields such as geology, metallurgy and medicine. Essential in obtaining information about the color intensity, structure and composition of a sample.

Kohler Illumination - broaden your knowledge of this technique which evenly illuminates the viewing field providing a bright specimen image and eliminates glare. 

Differential Interference Contrast - a microscopy techique which benefits from differences in the light refraction by various sections of living cells and transparent specimens allowing for better visibility during microscopic imaging.

As well as Super-Resolution Microscopy.


In conclusion, it is safe to say that microscopes have played a central part in life sciences.  

This has positively contributed to the enhancement of quality of life since a lot of discoveries directly contributed to the development of drugs and cures used in the treatment of diseases and conditions that were previously misunderstood or not well understood.

A cell is the single unit of life, and to understand and study it, the microscope is necessary. The discovery of cells and genes were major milestones in the medical sciences and were a great influence to the development of new effective cures and a reduction of mortality cases among populations.

Check out detailed research into the Zebrafish and HeLa Cells

Learn about Considerations and Benefits of Scientific Microscopes for Research

Check out our section on Cell Biology

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