Swiss company Nanolive has created 3D Cell Explorer, a new technology that creates vibrantly detailed 3D holograms of living cells on the nanometric scale. Created through combining 3D imagery with digital staining, the new microscope offers researchers and hospitals a novel tool to non-invasively peer inside living cells almost in real time, opening up new areas of biological research.

Looking directly at living cells is still rare in microscopy because, well, life moves. While an electron microscope might give a better resolution than 3D Cell Explorer, it comes at the cost of not being able to evaluate the cell responding to its environment, as is possible with Nanolive's living cell tomography technology.

Creating the holograph is achieved by directing a laser at a steep angle through the sample and then rotating the laser to obtain multiple angles. Slices of the cell are stacked back together in the accompanying software tool, named STEVE. Users can then recreate a 3D image of the cell to manipulate and watch with a delay of less than a second.

Instead of preparing dyed cells for hours before observing them under a fluorescent microscope, STEVE uses the different refractive (IR) values obtained from the holography scans to let users digitally "stain" similar values. In practice, any cellular material would have a different IR, so a cell nucleus might stand out opposite its cytoplasm and organelles. In this manner, a scientist can change what he or she is looking for on the fly.

The end result of this process is a noninvasive procedure that overcomes what was historically thought of as a natural limitation on light microscopy to obtain results down to 70 nm in living cells. Another scientist, Eric Betzig, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2014 for creating a method of microscopy that also overcame the diffraction limit of light (super-resolution microscopy) and said of his findings, "You really need to be able to look at living cells because life is animate — it’s what defines life."

Research leading to 3D Cell Explorer began in Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), where Nanolive's founders Yann Cotte and Fatih Toywere were obtaining their PhDs. They originally published their research in Nature Photonics in January 2013.

3D Cell Explorer is available for preorders through Nanolive, though STEVE can be downloaded to try now for free. The cheapest offered price to reserve your own 3D holographic microscope is €13,930 (US$14,685).

In the video below, watch as a scientist loads a sample into 3D Cell Explorer and creates a digitally dyed 3D model of a cell.

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