The NanoVision Centre: The gods of small things

Today, London's new NanoVision Centre unveils Britain's finest collection of high-power, cutting-edge microscopes. Rob Sharp meets the scientists with their eyes on the bigger picture

If you have ever wondered what the mayonnaise in your sandwich would look like close up, or what exactly solar panels are made of, or what unhealthy bone marrow does when it is, well, diseased, then your prayers are about to be answered. The University of London is opening one of Europe's most cutting-edge microscope facilities, boosting the university's research efforts and the country's technological clout and the pictures here give you the chance to peek down the eyepiece.

The new NanoVision Centre, at Queen Mary college, officially fires its first stream of electrons today, but in testing their equipment, they have come up with these stunning images. The centre, which researchers from across Britain will be able to use, boasts some of the best electron microscopes in Europe.

The centre will have the country's first "ultra-high-resolution 3D environmental scanning electron microscope". This piece of kit will allow the university's scientists to build up stunning and immensely useful pictures of human cells. This, the researchers say, will allow them to study the passage of viruses into cells in more detail. As the process is better understood, so medical science hopes it can combat illness more effectively.

Scanning electron microscopes project high-energy particles at the surface being examined. This excites the particles within it making them wobble and the microscope then detects where they are. They are many times more powerful than conventional light microscopes. The smallest objects they can see are just one nanometre that's a billionth of a metre (or one millionth of a millimetre).

Dr Andy Bushby, who heads up the 2.75m centre, explains: "It has taken about two years to get this thing together. The really exciting part is getting bang-up-to-date techniques and applying them to areas where they are not normally applied. It allows us to do things in medical research which we would not have been able to do even a year ago. For example, when looking at human cells in three dimensions, it allows us to see where things are within that cell in great detail. This spatial information is useful in immunology, in terms of how viruses get inside human cells; we can then find out what they associate with inside the cell, and therefore how they work.

"We are also pairing different microscopes together to work in concert, which allows us to do new things. For example, a 'scanning-probe microscope' allow us to find out how stiff a material is. We are putting this inside another microscope, so we have lots of ways of looking at something at the same time. This allows us, for example, to learn how biological structures behave in different ways.

"The latest kit has only just become available," he continues, "and that's why we have the most up-to-date technology in the UK. They really are hot from the factory. It's also timely these technologies are coming along at a time to fit in with the research we are doing."

And what else should we expect from a unit specialising in the ultra-tiny, but a suitably minuscule opening ceremony? The scientists will use a miniature robot to cut a microscopic fibre, a "nano-ribbon" atop a pinhead to mark the occasion.

Because the microscopes use electrons rather than light, all the images are initially received in black and white. But to make it easier for the eye to see textures, depth and contrast, as well as to distinguish different surfaces, colours are added by computer. These pictures show just a few of the NanoVision Centre's many imaging possibilities.