How Microscopy Changed the Battle against Deadly Pathogens

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to pathogens. Viruses often evolve faster than we can create vaccines, bacteria can adapt to and multiply in a variety of environments, while protozoal agents continue to cause historically problematic diseases like amoebiasis and malaria, especially in developing countries. Some of the most common pathogens that we encounter today include the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli), the worst type of which can cause bloody diarrhea and kidney failure, and the highly contagious Streptococcal bacteria, which can cause strep throat infection that may complicate further into an illness like pneumonia.

The modern microscope has a firm place in combating such diseases. Life scientists now benefit from enhancements in the microscope’s optical system, thus acquiring images and interpreting microscopic information at a faster and more efficient rate than ever before.

Moreover, the field of microscopy has shifted from manual to automated, and from analog to digital. Many modern-day microscopes are also outfitted with precision linear motion components, such as linear stages that enable optimum focus with little difficulty.

A microscope serves three core functions: to magnify a specimen in question; to resolve or separate its distinctive details; and to render these details visible to its human operator or to the digital camera component. Here’s a quick study on how these core functions work together for an important task: identifying and responding to pathogens.

The Role of a Modern Microscope in Pathogen Detection

Microscopy is involved in studying the various aspects of an infectious agent, such as cell morphology and aetiology. The study of cell morphology constitutes looking at their distinctive shapes, sizes, and forms. When this applies to the more specialized field of bacteriology, it involves classifying the shape of bacteria as cocci, bacilli, spiral, and so on. Aetiology, on the other hand, involves the critical study of the cause or origin of a disease.

What modern microscopic techniques, such as electron microscopy, have helped achieve is this: they serve to detect the presence of and identify pathogens based on their morphologies. Thanks to the high magnification, speed, and precision focus afforded by these microscopes, virologists, for instance, can clearly visualize each pathogenic attribute. Instead of conducting tedious assays that require their own viral probes, they may move straight to the examination stage.

In summary, these hi-tech microscopes contribute greatly to rapid diagnostic methods—rapid and clear identification of a disease’s properties, rapid delivery of antibiotics and other medications and, ultimately, rapid patient recovery.

Focusing on the Future of Diagnostics

This is not to say that modern microscopy will cease to evolve. In fact, the opposite applies: now, in the late 2010s, microscopes have been the subject of ever-intriguing technological innovation.

One such example from researchers in the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is the modification of a microscope to include a bouncing laser light under the microscope. The laser generates holographic images of the pathogen, and computer software with a machine-learning algorithm is utilized to quickly identify and compare the properties to other known bacteria. This is the kind of technology that can be used by labs in the food industry to screen products for contamination.

Another compelling example is one where scientists from the Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre (BIDMC) are developing an automated microscope outfitted with artificial intelligence (AI). This type of microscope runs on a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyze high-resolution image data from slides, and to classify the individual specimens according to their shape (rod-shaped, round clusters, or round chains of pairs) and distribution. The prototype’s AI system “learned” of these qualities from more than 100,000 images from blood samples, and notched an impressive accuracy rate of 95%.

Therein lies just a “sample” of the new possibilities ahead for microscopes. For now, here’s to the family of technologies that grants patients fighting chances against diseases.


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