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Home > Press > Scientists and students publish blueprints for a cheaper single-molecule microscope

Abstract:
Scientists and students publish blueprints for a cheaper single-molecule microscope to make the specialist technique more widely available

•A team of scientists and students from the University of Sheffield has published the blueprints for a specialist single-molecule microscope they built for a tenth of the cost of commercially available equipment
•Their paper in Nature Communications provides labs with the build instructions and software needed to run the microscope
•The single-molecule method this microscope is capable of is currently only available in a few specialist labs throughout the world

Scientists and students publish blueprints for a cheaper single-molecule microscope

Sheffield, UK | Posted on November 6th, 2020

A team of scientists and students from the University of Sheffield has designed and built a specialist microscope, and shared the build instructions to help make this equipment available to many labs across the world.

The microscope, called the smfBox, is capable of single-molecule measurements allowing scientists to look at one molecule at a time rather than generating an average result from bulk samples and works just as well as commercially available instruments.

This single-molecule method is currently only available at a few specialist labs throughout the world due to the cost of commercially available microscopes.

Today (6 November 2020), the team has published a paper in the journal Nature Communications which provides all the build instructions and software needed to run the microscope, to help make this single-molecule method accessible to labs across the world.

The interdisciplinary team spanning the University of Sheffield's Departments of Chemistry and Physics, and the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, spent a relatively modest £40,000 to build a piece of kit that would normally cost around £400,000 to buy.

The microscope was built with simplicity in mind so that researchers interested in biological problems can use it with little training, and the lasers have been shielded in such a way that it can be used in normal lighting conditions, and is no more dangerous than a CD player.

Dr Tim Craggs, the lead academic on the project from the University of Sheffield, said: "We wanted to democratise single-use molecule measurements to make this method available for many labs, not just a few labs throughout the world. This work takes what was a very expensive, specialist piece of kit, and gives every lab the blueprint and software to build it for themselves, at a fraction of the cost.

"Many medical diagnostics are moving towards increased sensitivity, and there is nothing more sensitive than detecting single molecules. In fact, many new COVID tests currently under development work at this level. This instrument is a good starting point for further development towards new medical diagnostics."

The original smfBox was built by a team of academics and undergraduate students at the University of Sheffield.

Ben Ambrose, the PhD lead on the project, said: "This project was an excellent opportunity to work with researchers at all levels, from undergraduates to scientists in national facilities. Between biophysicists and engineers, we have created a new and accessible platform to do some cutting edge science without breaking the bank. We are already starting to do some great work with this microscope ourselves, but I am excited to see what it will do in the hands of other labs who have already begun to build their own."

The Craggs Lab at the University of Sheffield has already used the smfBox in its research to investigate fundamental biological processes, such as DNA damage detection, where improved understanding in this field could lead to better therapies for diseases including cancer.

####

About University of Sheffield
With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world's leading universities.

A member of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

For more information, please click here

Contacts:
Emma Griffiths
Media and PR Assistant
University of Sheffield
0114 222 1034

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