Scientists and students design cheaper single-molecule microscope

A team of scientists and students from Sheffield University have published the blueprints for a specialist single-molecule microscope they claim to have built for a tenth of the cost of commercially available equipment.

single-molecule microscope
Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Published today (6 November 2020) in the journal Nature Communications, the paper provides instructions on building the microscope, called the sfmBox, which is said to be capable of single-molecule measurements allowing scientists to look at just one molecule at a time rather than generating a result from bulk samples.

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The single-molecule method is currently only available at a few specialist labs throughout the world due to the significant commercial cost of these microscopes. According to the team, spanning Sheffield University’s Departments of Chemistry and Physics, and the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a ‘relatively modest’ £40,000 was spent on building the piece of kit which would usually cost around £400,000 to buy.

Dr Tim Craggs, the lead academic on the project from Sheffield University, said: “Many medical diagnostics are moving towards increased sensitivity, and there is nothing more sensitive than detecting single molecules. In fact, many new COVID tests currently under development work at this level. This instrument is a good starting point for further development towards new medical diagnostics.”

Said to be designed with simplicity in mind so that researchers can use it with little training, the team claim that the piece of kit is ‘no more dangerous than a CD player’ and can be used in normal lighting conditions.

Ben Ambrose, the PhD lead on the project, said: “This project was an excellent opportunity to work with researchers at all levels, from undergraduates to scientists in national facilities. Between biophysicists and engineers, we have created a new and accessible platform to do some cutting-edge science without breaking the bank. We are already starting to do some great work with this microscope ourselves, but I am excited to see what it will do in the hands of other labs who have already begun to build their own.”