Posted by Fred Koenig on Feb 2nd 2022

What Are Phase-Contrast Microscopes Used For?

Before we explain the phase-contrast microscopy applications, let's explore what phase-contrast microscopy is. Phase-contrast microscopy is a technique that brings out brightness variations in the image of the specimen. It's referred to as ""phase-contrast"" because of the way it manipulates the light's phase shifts as it passes through a transparent sample; the phase shifts themselves are invisible, but they're represented in the highly contrasted image that the microscope creates. Explained simply, phase shifts are made visible by separating the illuminating light in the background from the specimen-scattered light in the foreground. These different lights are then manipulated differently depending on the application.

Phase-contrast microscopes are important in biology since they show cellular structures that are impossible to see with the use of a standard compound microscope. Phase-contrast microscopes are what allowed scientists to see and understand the division and multiplication of cells in living things! This kind of microscopy is one of the few methods that can measure cellular structure without the use of fluorescence.

The significance and amount of ways that phase-contrast microscopes can be used can never be overstated, especially when it comes to their life-saving capabilities. Here's a list of ten chemical, biological, and industrial applications that phase-contrast microscopes can be used for:

  1. Molecular and cellular biology research: Molecular biology deals with the structure and function of macromolecules while cellular biology deals with the structure and function of cells. Scientists use phase-contrast microscopes to research cells and macromolecules to better understand and make discoveries about them.
  2. Clinical and medical diagnosis of health conditions: Doctors use many tools to identify diseases and injuries in their patients, including medical health histories, physical exams, blood tests, and biopsies. Phase-contrast microscopes can provide clinicians with key information that couldn't otherwise be identified, which helps them choose the right diagnosis and prescribe the right treatment.
  3. Live blood cell analysis: Live blood cell analysis, also referred to as LBA, uses phase-contrast microscopy to observe live blood cells to prevent, diagnose, and treat a multitude of illnesses. The reliability of this method is contested among scientists, but phase-contrast microscopes are invaluable in the process nonetheless.
  4. Microbiological research such as virology, bacteriology, and parasitology: Microbiology is the study of living organisms that are too small to be viewed without a microscope. Virology is the study of viruses, bacteriology is the study of bacteria, and parasitology is the study of parasitic organisms.
  5. Plant and animal cells in marine biology: Marine biologists study organisms that live in the ocean. Phase-contrast microscopy is just as helpful in studying cellular structures of plants and animals in the ocean as it is studying plants and animals that live on land.
  6. Dust mite control: Dust mites are pests that cause asthma and allergic reactions in many people. They're too small to be seen with the naked eye, but they're easy to see under a microscope, and phase-contrast microscopes allow us to see and study dust mites to understand better how to prevent their presence in the home.
  7. Paleontology: Paleontologists study the fossils of both plants and animals. Scientists use phase-contrast microscopes to study the finest details of the smallest bones, rocks, plants, etc. Some of the specific characteristics of fossils that paleontologists can discover using microscopy include classifying ancient organisms, estimating how long ago those organisms lived, and the overall history of life.
  8. Wastewater management: Scientists who work in wastewater management are responsible for removing contaminants from wastewater, which is usually freshwater that's been used for washing away waste products. After the contaminants are removed, the water is converted into an effluent to be returned to the water cycle.
  9. Mineralogy: Mineralogy is the scientific study of minerals. Mineralogists use phase-contrast microscopes to view and understand minerals' chemistry, crystal structure, and physical properties to classify them and figure out where they originated from. There are many different subsets of mineralogy, including systematic mineralogy, biomineralogy, and mineral ecology.
  10. Crystallography: Crystallography is an experimental science; scientists use it to try and determine the exact arrangement of atoms within crystalline structures. Despite the inference you might make because of this method's name, crystallography doesn't only study crystals but also specimens that don't typically occur as crystals.

As you can see, there are very few fields that can't benefit from the use of phase-contrast microscopes. From diagnosing serious diseases to uncovering the history of animals that lived millions of years ago, phase-contrast microscopy has provided countless contributions to the scientific community and will no doubt provide countless more. We hope that this information has been enlightening and that you learned at least one thing about the ways that phase-contrast microscopes can be used!