When deciding whether to buy or build a microscope for your lab, consider key factors. Buying from vendors offers reliability, support, customization, and ease of peer review. Building your own can save money, tailor it to specific needs, and democratize science, but it requires significant expertise and effort. Evaluate your resources, goals, and funding to choose the best approach for your research needs.

When the father-son duo Hans and Zacharias Janssen invented the first compound microscope back in the 16th century, little did they know that microscopy would turn out to be one of the most pivotal instruments in understanding life as we know it.

Today, researchers have access to a wide variety of microscopes—ranging from the simplest light microscope to fully decked out multiphoton confocal, super-resolution imaging, and automated microscopy systems.

However, researchers at the forefront of understanding cellular processes often face the conundrum of whether to geek out and build their own high-end peek-a-boo imaging setup or spend out and buy microscopes directly from vendors.

In this article, we discuss the options for both building and buying advanced microscopes and consider which choice is most prudent for you.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

It’s not uncommon for scientists to be do-it-yourself (DIY) tinkerers on the side. If you are a DIY person, it is quite possible to build your own digital microscope with just a smartphone or even your own PCR machine.

However, things get complicated when you need to build a microscope to do more than just peep into cells and tissues using visible light.

Benefits of Buying a Microscope (The Sane Choice)

Let us admit it. Most of us would want to focus our energy on research instead of having to dabble daily with optics, mirrors, and lasers—that’s the core facility’s job.

Some advantages of going the commercial route and buying a microscope from the vendor include:

1. You Get Application Support

Major microscope vendors have world-class application support. Technicians can visit your lab and work with you and your colleagues to help you get the most out of the instrument, from installing it in a sensible place to buying the best add-ons and attachments.

Companies also invite customers to take part in imaging conferences, which are great for networking and keeping oneself updated.

Psst! Apart from the hardware, a major chunk of the cost includes technical and service support, so make the most of it.

2. There are Loads of Customization Options

Vendors specialize in offering customized or made-to-order variants tailored to your research.

  • Want an extra 355 nm near-UV or 633 nm far-red laser? Check.
  • Need a custom filter arrangement? Check.
  • Looking for specific objectives with maximum spherical and chromatic aberration correction? Check.
  • Need a CO2 and incubator attachment for live cell imaging to impress in the next lab meeting? Check.
  • Need a barebones system now that can be upgraded later? Double check.

Typically, all you need to do is explain your current and future requirements, sample types, and budget to the sales team, and they will do the heavy lifting and figure out which assortment of parts works best for you.

3. It Makes Peer Review of Your Results Easier

Two factors are important when considering any instrument purchase for your lab: reliability and reproducibility. 

Consider that other researchers might have a hard time reproducing the results you get on your DIY microscope.

If reviewers aren’t satisfied with the reproducibility of your data, they will likely reject your paper. While this is frustrating, it’s essential to uphold the integrity of scientific literature data.

So, when choosing whether to build or buy a microscope, consider whether it’s going to be your private workhorse never intended to produce publication-worthy data (such as examining protein crystallization experiments) or whether it’s intended to prove the hypothesis you’ve been working on for years. In the latter, case, it’s better to buy.

Note that when fellow researchers regularly refer to the microscope you intend to purchase in their papers, it’s a good sign it’s a trustworthy instrument that offers the twin essentials of reliability and reproducibility.

This helps cut across the marketing fluff and helps you decide whether you’ve made the right choice for your work.

4. You Get Bargaining Rights for Consumables

Let me tell you a little insider secret.

As expensive as these high-end scopes may seem, most manufacturers do not make great profits on hardware sales alone—they tend to make up this deficiency with consumables and other items they can upsell. These include:

  • Software
  • Laser/bulb attachments
  • Special calibration equipment
  • Fluorescent dyes
  • Emission/transmission filters
  • Accessories such as sample holders, microplate readers, and CO2 incubators for live cell imaging

However, most vendors will appreciate you buying from them and not a competitor and may, therefore, be willing to negotiate the price of some of these items. This means you can save significant dough on recurring consumable expenses by negotiating hard (and smart).

5. Some Types of Microscopes You Just Can’t Build

While projects such as OpenFlexure, miCube, Foldscope, and the like make it relatively easy to get up and running with a custom (and cheap) microscope setup, it is simply impossible to replicate this across all microscope types. 

Good luck building your own scanning electron (SEM), transmission electron (TEM), or atomic force microscope (AFM)! 

Benefits of Building a Microscope (The Fun Choice)

While buying an advanced microscope from a qualified vendor offers several benefits, building a DIY microscope can also be a good option, offering several advantages that are just not possible with a conventional purchase order.

1. It’s Thrilling (and Probably Frustrating)

Thomas Edison famously quipped that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Building your own advanced microscope lets you actually live this quote.

While most microscopists have basic knowledge of concepts such as Köhler illumination, resolution, point spread function (PSF), and the works, sourcing necessary components and building out something on your own to meet these criteria is a different ball game altogether.

One of the prestigious research labs I have been to in India has a room dedicated to such experiments, aptly named “Bheja Fry” (Bheja meaning brain in colloquial Hindi). It’s not hard to see why it is named so.

2. You Will Contribute to Democratizing Science

Vendor instruments often come with the baggage of patents and licensing, which means you’re limited to their walled garden. With DIY, you can open-source your design to the larger scientific community, draw inspiration, and help others save on costs.

Did you know that you can build an ultra-cheap yet fully functional brightfield, darkfield, or even a fluorescence microscope based on origami?

3. You Will Gain A Better Understanding of How Microscopes Work

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate how stuff works is to try building it yourself. I tell colleagues to use Arch Linux or learn Assembly if they really want to learn how a computer works. The same goes for microscopes as well.

If you want to really understand how light works and in turn make it work for you, you need to travel along with it. DIY is the best way to do this.

4. The Microscope will be Tailormade for Your Research

While vendors do offer made-to-order designs, they probably won’t create something from scratch just for your lab.

If you want something built to the requirements for your experiments, it makes sense to build your own microscope.

5. You Can Save Money

Fund crunch is real, and not all labs can afford to splurge hundreds of thousands of pounds on uber-cool microscopes.

Building your own system not only saves a decent chunk of change but also gives you an opportunity to reuse existing tools and materials already available in your lab and spend the money saved elsewhere. Sustainable research FTW!

6. You Can Attract Talented People to Your Lab

Knowing that you are building something innovative and advertising that you want to do so (to get help with it) is likely to get you an equally geeky PhD or postdoc in your lab.

Table 1 below summarizes what to consider when deciding whether to build or buy a microscope.

Table 1. Should you build or buy a microscope?

Order a microscope if you…

Go DIY if you…

Want peace of mind.

Prefer racking your brain to understand how microscopes actually work.

Prefer high-end application support.

Want help democratize science.

Need more customization options.

Want to something exquisite tailormade for your research.

Want reproducible data that has been vetted by peers in reputed journals.

Want to make the most of available resources in the lab.

Are looking at striking an enticing bargain on recurring consumable expenses.

Want to attract talent as good as yourself.

Are There Examples of Advanced Microscopes that Work?

Yes, and some breathtaking inventions at that.

SCAPE (Pioneered by a GOAT)

Swept, Confocally Aligned Planar Excitation (SCAPE) is a microscope designed by Elizabeth Hillman’s lab at Columbia University. SCAPE, now in its 2.0 version, is a 3D microscopy technique that can do in vivo imaging of living tissue and moving small organisms such as Drosophila larvae or mouse brain.

It is a single objective light sheet that can image at the rate of 300 volumes per second through a single objective lens without having to move the sample or the objective. So, stuff like imaging a live worm or real-time organ function can now be done faster and at a much higher resolution than before.

The Hillman lab is working with collaborators to expand SCAPE’s applications. SCAPE is licensed to Leica Microsystems for commercial development, but you can contact the Hillman lab to build your own SCAPE system. The lab has other cool imaging systems in tow as well.

Super-resolution in the PALM of Your Hand

Photoactivated Localization Microscopy (PALM) is a DIY project that has helped progress the realm of microscopy to nanoscopy (studying things at the nanometer scale).

Super-resolution techniques such as PALM enable circumventing the classical optical resolution limit of 0.25 micrometers.

PALM is a probe-based super-resolution imaging technique that involves stochastic activation and photobleaching of fluorescence probes over 1000s of frames.

The reconstructed image from these frames allows for temporal resolution of molecules that would otherwise be impossible to spatially resolve below 300 nm. With PALM, researchers can achieve an XY precision of up to 5 nm and a Z precision of up to 50 nm.

Eric Betzig and Harold Hess at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus pioneered PALM. Betzig was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Stefan Hell and William Moerner for their contributions to super-resolution microscopy.

By the way, we’ve interviewed Stefan Hell and Eric Betzig on our podcast, The Microscopists. Click on those links to listen to their stories.

PALM is licensed to Zeiss for commercial development. However, you can develop your own PALM system that can result in substantial savings. The University of Utah Advanced Microscopy division shows how the facility built its own PALM system.

A handy reference to building your own super-resolution microscope is also available on J-PARC’s Dr. Hiroyuki Aoki’s webpage on nanoimaging.org.

Commercializing Your DIY Microscopes

Funded research labs are not into making products for profit. However, inventions from these labs need to be widely accessible to be useful. 

While you look at your novel DIY creation in awe and pat yourself on the back, the icing on the cake is that you can very well commercialize it and make the effort even more worthwhile.

Many institutions allow third parties such as industries, local colleges, and other institutions to schedule the use of their instrumentation for a price, usually billed hourly. 

This is a great way to educate the broader scientific community in the vicinity about your invention and help them make use of it for their own research. The added benefit is the handy change that comes along which can be utilized towards running expenses, consumable purchases, etc.

To take things a step further, look at commercialization options. Commercialization allows research to translate into public benefits, like how SCAPE and PALM are now accessible to researchers around the world via major microscope vendors instead of being confined to their respective labs.

This has the added benefit of bringing in royalties to both the inventor and the host institution, which in turn gets funneled into further research.

How Do I Commercialize My DIY Microscope?

The process of commercialization can vary among institutions. Broadly, this involves first patenting the invention and figuring out the paperwork in liaison with the institution’s patent office.

Patents can be filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and in foreign countries. The latter option can be expensive and is only preferred if the royalties can match or exceed filing costs.

While the patent filing process is on, the inventor and/or the institute invites industry partners (licensees) to evaluate the applicability of the invention to a commercial product. At this point, royalties are negotiated depending on how the licensee approaches the inventor or the institute. The negotiation can include an exclusivity clause if needed.

If everything goes without hiccups, revenues as a result of the commercialization are shared between the inventor and the host institute.

The University of California and Michigan Technological University offer insights into their licensing processes that can be helpful in getting an overview of how technology transfer is achieved.

Getting the Latest Microscope Technology in Summary

With rapid advancements in microscope and computing technologies together with an increasing clamor for the need to democratize science, as a researcher, you now have lots of microscope options to choose from depending on your research needs and availability of capital.

Configuring and buying a microscope from an established vendor might make sense for most researchers. 

This allows you to focus on your science and leave the technical nitty-gritty to the specialists. If you are facing a fund crunch, you can start low and gradually add on to the base system.

However, there may be projects that require an entirely radical approach to microscopy beyond the scope (pun intended) of existing vendor options. 

If you have sufficient expertise in this area and have built a unique system, you and your institute may stand to profit from commercialization. In this case, building your own microscope is probably a better bet.

Had a go at building your own microscope for your lab? Let us know in the comments section below!

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