Leeuwenhoek whine a stinker…

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Collected letters of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Vol. II, Amsterdam, Sweets and Zeitlinger Ltd, 1941.
Collected letters of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Vol. II, Amsterdam, Sweets and Zeitlinger Ltd, 1941.

I’ve long had great respect and admiration for those pioneers of microscopy. Men – for such was the case in those ‘good old days’ – such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Hooke and Nehemiah Grew whose inquiry and insight into matters microscopical paved the way for subsequent structure–function investigations (and the not inconsequential matter of the Cell Theory!). So, it will come as a bit of a shock to think that there are modern-day individuals who cast doubt on the abilities of those founding fathers because they are unable to reproduce what they found using the original instruments. (What’s that I hear you say? A ‘bad workman blames his tools’..?) Fortunately, those 17th century notables have a 21st century champion: Prof. Brian Ford. In his quiet and unassuming article entitled ‘The Clarity of Images from Early Single-Lens Microscopes Captured on Video’ (Microscopy and Analysis 25: 15–17, 2011) he dramatically demonstrates just what impressive resolving power and optics those early microscopes actually had. And Ford makes the point that inability to reproduce the best results nowadays is due in no small part to lack of appreciation of how to use a microscope properly. It is disappointing to note that such skills are probably very much a dying art – even though they are the starting point for a lot of science and are about much more than simply how to set up a microsope correctly. We must not lose those skills – or the spirit of enquiry that accompanies them them – however ‘old-fashioned’ they may appear to be! This theme is echoed in an opinion piece by Resia Pretorius (Journal of Microscopy 241: 219–220, 2011) in which she ponders whether current research over-emphasises the value of molecules and disease modelling or, rather, under-estimates the usefulness of microscopy and morphology. And, lest there be any lingering doubt of the value of microscopy in the 21st century, its relevance is graphically demonstrated in the work of Angélica Bello et al. (International Journal of Plant Sciences 171: 482–498, 2010). Their elegant scanning electron microscopy (SEM) study of flower development in the Polygalaceae has revealed that the similar-looking keeled flowers of the Leguminosae are fundamentally different. And in an exciting EM development, Xiaokun Shu and colleagues (PLoS Biology 9: e1001041; doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001041) have used a fluorescent flavoprotein – engineered from arabidopsis phototropin 2 – to achieve high-quality ultrastructural preservation and 3-dimensional protein localisation (unfortunately, in an animal system, but that’s not the point!). The authors of the work have no doubts about the significance of this ‘mini-SOG’ (singlet oxygen generator – the bit of chemistry the protein engages in) and suggest that it ‘may do for EM what Green Fluorescent Protein did for fluorescence microscopy’(!).


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