A new architecture for Olympus' IX line gives users flexibility and optics module makers a new development platform.

The IX83 inverted research microscope, introduced this year by Olympus America, is available as a one-deck system with low stage height, or as a two-deck system with expansion capabilities as shown. A range of imaging techniques is available, facilitated by modular optics components that can be quickly installed or removed. Image: Olympus AmericaInvented in 1850, the inverted microscope has been a laboratory stalwart, giving researchers a direct and simple platform for optically viewing samples. The concept is simple: By fixing the sample stage and allowing the optics equipment to adjust, the user has more control over the object under analysis. An inverted layout allows researchers to use a multitude of optical analysis equipment, including filter wheels, and makes micromanipulation applications easier.

Samples can be viewed from underneath the stage as well, using reflective objectives. However, as the options for optical analysis have increased, so has the premium on the space available for new methods. Add-on observation tools such as cameras, fluorescence illuminators, and confocal accessories are attached to the inverted microscope using optical ports or by disassembling the microscope. These approaches often require complex routines that can erode valuable time, cause instrument wear and disturbance, and block the use of more complex setups.

Users have dealt with these limitations by planning ahead, or by using multiple inverted microscopes, each with a different setup. This has been the accepted practice for decades, but Olympus America, Center Valley, Pa., hopes to ease the pain by bringing a high degree of convenience and simplicity to changes in optical accessories.

The company's new IX3 line of inverted microscopes are the first to include modular optical cartridges, which are designed with a multistory optical deck area that can be configured with one or two decks for the insertion of various optical components. These openings, or frame ports, make the microscopes modular, allowing the rapid plug-and-play insertion of magnification changers, filter turrets, a right side port, or other options.

Cartridges speed the research process
The two new microscopes to feature this innovation are the IX83, a fully automated high-end research microscope platform, and the IX73, a modular microscope system that can be configured in manual, semi-motorized, or motorized versions. A third microscope, the IX53, is designed for quick and efficient routine examination of multiple tissue samples and does not include the multistory configurable deck.

According to Michael Lewis, director of product marketing in the Scientific Equipment Group at Olympus, development of the new decks was spurred on by the desire to remove one of the more laborious tasks facing a microscopist: reconfiguring the instrument.

"The key is the modularity, and flexibility allows the user to design a microscope for their particular needs. It also makes it easy to later upgrade or reconfigure," says Lewis.

One of the expected limitations of earlier inverted microscopes was the need to attach additional equipment, such as filter wheels or chromators, to the outside of the microscope. Sometimes, however, access to the optical path was required. To add a right side port, for example, the user was forced to disassemble the microscope, removing the nose piece, filter turret, stage assembly, and then reconstruct the instrument.

Now, the process for installing a module has been reduced to the removal of just two screws. The open architecture of the deck area allows the insertion of optical components from the side: one slot for the IX73, and two for the IX83.

The benefits extend to more than just flexibility, says Lewis. By allowing quick attachment of different modules to the microscope, users can save a considerable amount of time during the analysis process, especially when anticipated analyses are required.

Customizable optics
At launch, available cartridges were being produced by Sutter Instruments, Novato, Calif., and Prior Scientific Inc., Rockland, Mass. Sutter manufactures a filter wheel insert, and Prior also sells a filter wheel, as well as a breadboard. Sutter's online catalog already lists a number of adaptors for the IX83 microscope.

"The open architecture means that you are not just limited to what Olympus designs. It means you are now open to many others," says Lewis. "A lot of researchers are excited by what they build in this large, open space."

"In the past, Sutter would add a filter wheel to our old IX71. To do this they would have to modify the filter frame and build it up in the infinity space," says Lewis. The process required sending the microscope to Sutter for the work, and it was a difficult and rarely done project. Now, this module just slides in. Olympus expects other companies to take advantage of this architecture to design other cartridges. The large available space is also optimal for user-designed modules.

"It gives them access to the optical path and the infinity space between the objective and the camera," says Lewis.

Mountable accessories for the IX83 include fluorescence mirror turrets, a right side port with C-mount, an encoded magnification changer, and reflected light fluorescence illuminators. To provide more flexibility, the two-deck system allows the simultaneous mounting of two illumination units. The IX3 system can also be isolated from vibration sources through the combined use of a new line of high-speed filter wheels and light guide light sources.

All third-party developers need to begin development on their own cartridges, according to Olympus, are the dimensions of the opening and the specifications of the dovetail mounting for the cartridge.

Additional developments in the IX3
Best known for its utility in live-cell imaging, the IX3 line is flexible enough for a wide variety of studies, including metallurgical samples. The design stresses high structural rigidity and thermal stability through the use of an ultrasonic motorized stage. High numerical aperture UIS2 optics are manufactured from lead-free glass.

Fly-eye fluorescence illuminators, newly designed for this line, offer even, bright illumination across the specimen, allowing a much wider field of view. Because of the revised architecture of the IX3 microscopes, Olympus took the opportunity to allow the use of cameras up to 22 mm diameter. The new silicon-based CMOS cameras offer almost double the field of view of prior CCD cameras, and require the high performance of an updated illuminator.

At the top end, the IX83 is available with third-generation Zero Drift focus compensation technology, which provides consistent focus during lengthy time-lapse experiments. This system can operate the microscope automatically without a computer.

Another feature that grabs the attention of customers, says Lewis, is the Smart Button function contained in the IX3 microscopes’ touchscreen controllers. This feature, new for the IX3 line, is essentially a macro, or script, which can be quickly configured to automatically execute a sequence of actions.

"You can just activate the Smart Button through the touch panel and, for example, scan a three-color Z-stock, deconvolute the images, and then conduct an automatic side-by-side image comparison, all with a single button touch," says Lewis.

Flexibility, lower cost, better research
The new IX line also plays into the perceived need for more economizing in the laboratory. By selecting an instrument that has a little more flexibility, says Lewis, Olympus’ customers may save money down the stretch by not having to spend as much to gain new capabilities as improved cartridges emerge.

The new instruments were shown at the recent Neuroscience Conference, where Lewis says the new architecture generated a high level of interest. The flexibility offered by the IX3 is not limited to just experiments themselves, he says. By purchasing new cartridge modules down the road, buyers can potentially worry less about whether their microscope will be obsolete or too limiting.

"You may not know what you need now, but if you have the microscope, then on a future purchase cycle, you can upgrade to the component you want," says Lewis.

The company is currently working with third parties to help them configure technologies they may want to add to the microscope.