A quantum hack for microscopes can reveal the undiscovered details of life

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You’ve probably seen images of scientists peering down a microscope, looking at objects invisible to the naked eye. Indeed, microscopes are indispensable to our understanding of life.

They are just as indispensable to biotechnology and medicine, for instance in our response to diseases such as COVID-19. However, the best light microscopes have hit a fundamental barrier – the bright laser light used to illuminate tiny objects can also destroy them.

In research published in Nature today, our team of Australian and German researchers has shown that quantum technologies offer a solution. We built a quantum microscope that can more gently probe biological samples, which allowed us to observe biological structures that would otherwise be impossible to see.

Creating a damage-evading microscope like ours is a long-awaited milestone on international quantum technology roadmaps. It represents a first step into an exciting new era for microscopy, and for sensing technologies more broadly.

The problem with laser microscopes

Microscopes have a long history. They are thought to have been first invented by the Dutch lens-maker Zacharias Janssen around the turn of the seventeenth century. He may have used them to counterfeit coins. This chequered beginning led to the discovery of bacteria, cells and basically all microbiology as we now understand it.

The more recent invention of lasers provided an intense new kind of light. This made a whole new approach to microscopy possible. Laser microscopes allow us to see biology with truly exquisite detail, 10,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. They were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and have transformed our understanding of cells and of molecules like DNA within them.

However, laser microscopes face a major problem. The very quality that makes them successful – their intensity – is also their Achilles’ heel. The best laser microscopes use light billions of times brighter than sunlight on Earth. As you might imagine, this could cause serious sunburn!

In a laser microscope, biological samples can become sick or perish in seconds. You can see this happening in real time in the movie of a fibroblast cell below, taken by our team member Michael Taylor.

A cell getting uncomfortable and then dying under a laser microscope.

Spooky action at a distance provides the solution

Our microscope evades this problem. It uses a property called quantum entanglement, which Albert Einstein described as “spooky action at a distance”.

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