IB Biology SL

Revision Notes

1.2.7 Microscopes

Electron and Light Microscopes

NOS: Developments in scientific research follow improvements in apparatus; the invention of electron microscopes led to greater understanding of cell structure

  • In scientific research, critical developments often follow improvements in scientific apparatus
    • For example, distant objects in Space often remain undiscovered until a telescope (or some other piece of equipment) powerful enough to detect them is developed
  • The fact that scientific research is often held back by a lack of sufficiently powerful or precise apparatus is a problem that will continue into the future
  • In some ways, this is very exciting, as it suggests that our scientific knowledge and understanding of the universe will continue to expand as new scientific techniques and technologies are developed
  • The discovery of the microscope allowed scientists to discover many things such as:
    • Formulate the cell theory, discover bacteria, see chromosomes, understand fertilisation by witnessing the fusion of gametes and closely examine the complex structure of organs such as the liver
  • Due to constraints in technology (light microscopes cannot produce distinguishable clear images of structures smaller than 0.2 µm) developments in scientific research were limited
  • This was until a different type of the microscope was invented – the electron microscope
  • Electron microscopes enabled scientists to view structures 200 times smaller than light microscopes leading to a better understanding of the ultrastructure of cells
    • The grana of chloroplasts were observed to be constructed of stacks of flattened membrane sacs
    • Ribosomes and endoplasmic reticulum were discovered
  • Improvements to the design of electron microscopes (electron tomography) and the invention of new types of microscopes (fluorescence) are allowing further developments in scientific research to be made


  • Microscopes can be used to analyse cell components and observe organelles
  • Magnification and resolution are two scientific terms that are very important to understand and distinguish between when answering questions about microscopy (the use of microscopes):
    • Magnification tells you how many times bigger the image produced by the microscope is than the real-life object you are viewing
    • Resolution is the ability to distinguish between objects that are close together (i.e. the ability to see two structures that are very close together as two separate structures)
  • There are two main types of microscopes:
    • Optical microscopes (sometimes known as light microscopes)
    • Electron microscopes

Optical (light) microscopes

  • Optical microscopes use light to form an image
  • This limits the resolution of optical microscopes
    • Using light, it is impossible to resolve (distinguish between) two objects that are closer than half the wavelength of light
    • The wavelength of visible light is between 500-650 nanometres (nm), so an optical microscope cannot be used to distinguish between objects closer than half of this value
  • This means optical microscopes have a maximum resolution of around 0.2 micrometres (µm) or 200 nm
    • Optical microscopes can be used to observe eukaryotic cells, their nuclei and possibly mitochondria and chloroplasts
    • They cannot be used to observe smaller organelles such as ribosomes, the endoplasmic reticulum or lysosomes
  • The maximum useful magnification of optical microscopes is about ×1500

Electron microscopes

  • Electron microscopes use electrons to form an image
  • This greatly increases the resolution of electron microscopes compared to optical microscopes, giving a more detailed image
    • A beam of electrons has a much smaller wavelength than light, so an electron microscope can resolve (distinguish between) two objects that are extremely close together
  • This means electron microscopes have a maximum resolution of around 0.0002 µm or 0.2 nm (i.e. around 1000 times greater than that of optical microscopes)
    • This means electron microscopes can be used to observe small organelles such as ribosomes, the endoplasmic reticulum or lysosomes
  • The maximum useful magnification of electron microscopes is about ×1,500,000
  • There are two types of electron microscopes:
    • Transmission electron microscopes (TEMs)
    • Scanning electron microscopes (SEMs)

Transmission electron microscopes (TEMs)

  • TEMs use electromagnets to focus a beam of electrons
  • This beam of electrons is transmitted through the specimen
  • Denser parts of the specimen absorb more electrons
    • This makes these denser parts appear darker on the final image produced (produces contrast between different parts of the object being observed)
  • Advantages of TEMs:
    • They give high-resolution images (more detail)
    • This allows the internal structures within cells (or even within organelles) to be seen
  • Disadvantages of TEMs:
    • They can only be used with very thin specimens or thin sections of the object being observed
    • They cannot be used to observe live specimens
      • As there is a vacuum inside a TEM, all the water must be removed from the specimen and so living cells cannot be observed, meaning that specimens must be dead. Optical microscopes can be used to observe live specimens
    • The lengthy treatment required to prepare specimens means that artefacts can be introduced
      • Artefacts look like real structures but are actually the results of preserving and staining
    • They do not produce a colour image
      • Unlike optical microscopes that produce a colour image

Scanning electron microscopes (SEMs)

  • SEMs scan a beam of electrons across the specimen
  • This beam bounces off the surface of the specimen and the electrons are detected, forming an image
    • This means SEMs can produce three-dimensional images that show the surface of specimens
  • Advantages of SEMs:
    • They can be used on thick or 3-D specimens
    • They allow the external, 3-D structure of specimens to be observed
  • Disadvantages of SEMs:
    • They give lower resolution images (less detail) than TEMs
    • They cannot be used to observe live specimens
    • They do not produce a colour image

Comparison of the electron microscope & light microscope

  • Light microscopes are used for specimens above 200 nm
    • Light microscopes shine light through the specimen, this light is then passed through an objective lens (which can be changed) and an eyepiece lens (x10) which magnify the specimen to give an image that can be seen by the naked eye
    • The specimens can be living (and therefore can be moving), or dead
    • Light microscopes are useful for looking at whole cells, small plant and animal organisms, tissues within organs such as in leaves or skin
  • Electron microscopes, both scanning and transmission, are used for specimens above 0.5 nm
    • Electron microscopes fire a beam of electrons at the specimen either a broad static beam (transmission) or a small beam that moves across the specimen (scanning)
    • Due to the higher frequency of electron waves (a much shorter wavelength) compared to visible light, the magnification and resolution of an electron microscope is much better than a light microscope
    • Electron microscopes are useful for looking at organelles, viruses and DNA as well as looking at whole cells in more detail
    • Electron microscopy requires the specimen to be dead however this can provide a snapshot in time of what is occurring in a cell eg. DNA can be seen replicating and chromosome position within the stages of mitosis are visible

Comparing resolution, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

The resolving power of an electron microscope is much greater than that of the light microscope, as structures much smaller than the wavelength of light will interfere with a beam of electrons

Light Microscope vs Electron Microscope TableComparison of the Electron Microscope and Light Microscope table, AS & A Level Biology revision notes

Exam Tip

Learn the difference between resolution and magnification! Also, learn how the light and electron microscope differ in terms of resolution and magnification.

Author: Catherine

Cate has over 20 years’ experience teaching Biology to IGCSE, IB and A-level students in seven different countries across Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. This has given her a fine appreciation of different cultures, places and teaching methods. Cate has a keen interest in producing Biology revision resources that will help students engage with the subject.

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