Scientists from the University of Manchester have announced the development of the world's most powerful optical microscope. Called the "microsphere nanoscope," the device captures non-diffracted near-field virtual images that are amplified via silica glass microspheres, which are tiny optically-transparent spherical particles. Those images are then relayed and further amplified by a standard optical microscope. The nanoscope reportedly allows users to see objects as small as 50 nanometers under normal lighting – this is 20 times smaller than what conventional optical microscopes can manage, and is in fact said to be beyond the theoretical limits of optical microscopy.

Electron microscopes are already capable of imaging extremely small objects, but unlike optical microscopes, they can only "see" the outside of structures such as cells. By contrast, the nanoscope should be capable of seeing inside human cells, and without requiring them to first be dyed. The device could also potentially be used to observe live viruses for the first time ever, which could ultimately lead to a better understanding of their causes and treatments.

While the nanoscope has already set a new record, the Manchester scientists believe there is no theoretical limit to the smallness of objects that it could allow users to see.

"Not only have we been able to see items of 50 nanometres, we believe that is just the start and we will be able to see far smaller items," said project co-leader Professor Lin Li. "Seeing inside a cell directly without dying and seeing living viruses directly could revolutionize the way cells are studied and allow us to examine closely viruses and biomedicine for the first time."

The research was just published in the journal Nature Communications.