Our lab has been inventing and developing light sheet microscopes for many years. As many microscope developers do, we built our setups in dedicated rooms on specialized optical tables.
Building microscopes on optical tables is great during development, as all the components are accessible and held in place safely. Things got a bit difficult when we wanted to use the microscope somewhere else, say for a microscopy course or having a light sheet microscope in a museum. Then we built setup from the ground up on optical breadboards, carefully moved the setup to another room or building and carried all the required accessories in separate boxes.
With the success of light sheet microscopy, more and more scientists wanted to have such a microscope in their lab. Back in days where commercial solutions where sparse, we contributed to the OpenSPIM project to make this possible for researchers who had the capacity to built their own microscope. This project remains a success with many system being built around the globe, but several technical corners were cut to make this a small and affordable microscope.
As an alternative to building a microscope, interested researchers can come over and use existing microscopes in other research institutions. This approach that has been perfected by places like Janelia Farm’s AIC, but does not work for every part of the world or every sample with special needs out there. For some of our collaborators, it would have been great to bring the microscope to them, rather than them flying and shipping everything they need over to where our microscope is located. In addition, microscopes in our lab started to become cluttered. Different software versions and different design solutions made it difficult to keep all the setups running and up to date. So, we went back to the drawing board.
The design process
Artwork by Madelyn Neufeld
The primary goal of the Flamingo design process was to come up with a light sheet microscope that packs all the optical performance and most of the features of our existing microscopes in a compact and portable structure. To be suitable for as many applications as possible, we wanted the microscope to support different configurations and have some level of modularity. The first prototype looked great. Many custom-designed parts, clever opto-mechanical solutions and neat electronics went into it. It could be converted between two configurations and even had its own laser combiner right on the microscope. And we could place it on a bench, roll it from place to place on a cart – or take it on a plane to Germany.
While testing the prototype, we made a long list of things to tweak, and came up with a new iteration shortly after. This one is a lot smaller and way more polished, and it supports four different configurations.
Flamingo on the move
Now that we had our powerful compact and modular light sheet microscope, it was time to go out and test it in research labs. The entire setup fits in two Pelican cases that can be rolled around, packed in the trunk of a compact car and shipped around. Setting up a microscope only takes about an hour, so we can get going quickly.
So far, we have worked with dozens of researchers in several institutions and used the Flamingo for on-site workshops and virtual talks. The system handled a variety of biological samples, ran day-long time-lapses without complaints and turned out results that are on par with images recorded on our stationary microscopes.
Where we are heading
With Flamingo, we revolutionize how and where high-powered research microscopes are setup and used. Our approach has transformative benefits to the study of basic biology, as it allows scientists to do studies on living organisms close to where they reside. With help from our supporters, we aim to democratize high-end light microscopy, bringing it to campuses and labs for free. Ultimately, we want to reach a level where we can ship a microscope to a collaborator anywhere in the world and run imaging experiments remotely.
The concept is not limited to a specific microscopy technique. We start with light sheet microscopy, and the reasons to do so are simple. First of all, it is the best choice to image live, potentially fragile specimen in three dimensions over time. Second, Jan Huisken is co-inventor of light sheet microscopy, and our lab has plenty of experience in developing and using it.
Flamingo also has the potential to expand imaging opportunities beyond the well-established model organisms, enabling access to new species by bringing the microscope close to their natural habitat. In addition, we also see Flamingo as a great tool for research education in microscopy and biology courses.
Artwork by Jacki Whisenant