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Single-Molecule Resolution of Optical Microscope

Research by Larry Wade, P.I., Guillaume Lessard, Ziyang Ma, Jordan Gerton
Funded by NASA, BioNano, JPL R&TD, Pharmagenomics

Researchers at JPL have developed the first microscope that has an optical resolution 10 times more precise than in typical microscopes. This has allowed resolution of images at the molecular level and even as small as 4 nanometers.

This is a revolutionary step in the development of optical resolution microscopes, as the ultimate objective is to develop an optical microscope with the resolution of an electron microscope . These parameters would enable the following capabilities:

  • <1nm, single-molecule resolution and sensitivity in physiological (wet) environment
  • directly image and characterize the molecular interactions that determine biological behavior
  • develop supporting probe and substrate technologies.
FANSOM has achieved 4 nm resolution ( l /150) of single molecules. This extends optical imaging by a factor of 8 over near-field techniques and a factor of 60 over existing optical microscopes.

The nanolithography approach enables entirely new classes of molecular circuits and arrays 1,000,000 denser and 100,000 times more sensitive than before.

The nanotube probe results enabled 50-100 times faster assembly and 10 times better resolution than typical silicon tips.

Significance to Solar System Exploration

With better optical resolution comes more detailed, thorough analyses of sample return materials. Many of the elements of FANSOM could significantly improve the safety of long-duration space missions. For example, with its ability to detect images and fragments at the molecular level, this microscope would be able to quantitatively compare and characterize astronaut immune system response as a function of microgravity and radiation exposure. With the return to human space flight becoming more of a reality than an idea, this should prove to be extremely valuable to NASA.


FANSOM will vastly improve optical resolution by more than 40 times from traditional microscopes. In addition, returned samples can be viewed at the molecular level. This will help to identify fragments of life down to <1 nanometer, which will be crucial to NASA's Sample Return and Life Detection missions in the coming decades.

Last Updated: 21 January 2014

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Last Updated: 21 Jan 2014