Studying Cells


Cells vary in size. With few exceptions, individual cells cannot be seen with the naked eye, so scientists use microscopes (micro- = “small”; -scope = “to look at”) to study them. A microscope is an instrument that magnifies an object. Most photographs of cells are taken with a microscope, and these images can also be called micrographs.

The optics of a microscope’s lenses change the orientation of the image that the user sees. A specimen that is right-side up and facing right on the microscope slide will appear upside-down and facing left when viewed through a microscope, and vice versa. Similarly, if the slide is moved left while looking through the microscope, it will appear to move right, and if moved down, it will seem to move up. This occurs because microscopes use two sets of lenses to magnify the image. Because of the manner by which light travels through the lenses, this system of two lenses produces an inverted image (binocular, or dissecting microscopes, work in a similar manner, but include an additional magnification system that makes the final image appear to be upright).

Light Microscopes

To give you a sense of cell size, a typical human red blood cell is about eight millionths of a meter or eight micrometers (abbreviated as eight μm) in diameter; the head of a pin of is about two thousandths of a meter (two mm) in diameter. That means about 250 red blood cells could fit on the head of a pin.

Most student microscopes are classified as light microscopes (Figurea). Visible light passes and is bent through the lens system to enable the user to see the specimen. Light microscopes are advantageous for viewing living organisms, but since individual cells are generally transparent, their components are not distinguishable unless they are colored with special stains. Staining, however, usually kills the cells.

Light microscopes commonly used in the undergraduate college laboratory magnify up to approximately 400 times. Two parameters that are important in microscopy are magnification and resolving power. Magnification is the process of enlarging an object in appearance. Resolving power is the ability of a microscope to distinguish two adjacent structures as separate: the higher the resolution, the better the clarity and detail of the image. When oil immersion lenses are used for the study of small objects, magnification is usually increased to 1,000 times. In order to gain a better understanding of cellular structure and function, scientists typically use electron microscopes.

Part a: This light microscope has binocular lenses and four objective lenses. The sample stage is directly beneath the objective lens. The light microscope sits on a tabletop and can be easily carried. Part b: The electron microscope shown here sits in a museum. It is about the size of a desk, and a person can sit in front of it to operate it. A column taller than a person rises from the center of the scope.
(a) Most light microscopes used in a college biology lab can magnify cells up to approximately 400 times and have a resolution of about 200 nanometers. (b) Electron microscopes provide a much higher magnification, 100,000x, and a have a resolution of 50 picometers. (credit a: modification of work by "GcG"/Wikimedia Commons; credit b: modification of work by Evan Bench)

Electron Microscopes

In contrast to light microscopes, electron microscopes (Figureb) use a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. Not only does this allow for higher magnification and, thus, more detail (Figure), it also provides higher resolving power. The method used to prepare the specimen for viewing with an electron microscope kills the specimen. Electrons have short wavelengths (shorter than photons) that move best in a vacuum, so living cells cannot be viewed with an electron microscope.

In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, creating details of cell surface characteristics. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam penetrates the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than light microscopes.

Part a: Salmonella through a light microscope appear as tiny purple dots.
Part b: In this scanning electron micrograph, bacteria appear as three-dimensional ovals. The human cells are much larger with a complex, folded appearance. Some of the bacteria lie on the surface of the human cells, and some are squeezed between them.
(a) These Salmonella bacteria appear as tiny purple dots when viewed with a light microscope. (b) This scanning electron microscope micrograph shows Salmonella bacteria (in red) invading human cells (yellow). Even though subfigure (b) shows a different Salmonella specimen than subfigure (a), you can still observe the comparative increase in magnification and detail. (credit a: modification of work by CDC/Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Charles N. Farmer, Rocky Mountain Laboratories; credit b: modification of work by NIAID, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

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For another perspective on cell size, try the HowBig interactive at this site.

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