IBM said today that it has created a microscope with 100 million times the resolution of magnetic resonance imaging.

IBM’s researchers at the Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., said in a paper published today that the invention could revolutionize the study of viruses, bacteria, proteins and other tiny biological structures. They did the work in conjunction with researchers at Stanford University.

Based on magnetic resonance imaging, the new tool is a microscope that could view the structure and interactions of proteins. The researchers hope it will lead to more advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. It should also help with the study of electronic devices on the smallest levels.

But it isn’t like standard MRI, which has replaced X-rays for a lot of purposes. It uses a technique called magnetic resonance force microscopy, which relies on the detection of tiny magnetic forces. The researchers put a sample of something they want to see on a microscopic cantilever, which resembles a sliver of silicon shaped like a diving board. A laser tracks the motion of the cantilever, whose vibrations can be detected. The tip is scanned in 3-D and the cantilever vibrations are analyzed to create a 3-D image of whatever is being viewed. The resolution works down to four nanometers, or four-billionths of a meter. To give you an idea of scale, a tobacco mosaic virus (a tiny virus that affects plants such as tobacco) is 18 nanometers across.

The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here’s a YouTube video that shows how it works.



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