Scientists Design an Underwater Microscope

Scientists have just developed an underwater microscope. The new microscope can reach close to micron resolution and is helping researchers understand reef ecology processes. The details are in a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

In order to fully understand coral reefs, we need to observe and study the microscopic processes. Since underwater microscopy was unfeasible, researchers have had to rely on laboratory studies. It’s impossible to completely mimic ocean conditions, however, so these laboratory studies are limited.

Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography designed an underwater microscope capable of recording videos. The Benthic Underwater Microscope has a high magnification lens, fluorescent imaging, and an electrically tunable lens capable of allowing researchers to view objects in 3-D. The instrument can be used for viewing ecological processes as they naturally occur in the ocean.

The research team already made a few discoveries. They found that coral polyps regularly intertwine their gastrovascular openings at night, normally after a plankton feeding event. This behavior had never been observed since it was difficult to study individual coral polyps without microscopy. Scientists aren’t completely sure what drives the event but it may be a cooperative exchange of resources. The team also found that bleached coral are still alive at first; they’re just quickly choked out by filamentous algae species. This finding may help us learn how to prevent and reverse coral bleaching. The researchers were also able to observe chemical fights between neighboring coral, an event only viewable using microscopy.

Thanks to the underwater microscope, researchers were able to observe several previously unseen events, including strange polyp behavior and coral wars. They also learned that coral polyps initially survive bleaching events. The problem is that filamentous algae settle on the coral skeleton and rapidly take over. These findings may help us understand and prevent coral bleaching, a phenomenon that’s become more common due to climate change and pollution. The research team is also designing an experiment to study coral respiration.


Andrew D. Mullen, Tali Treibitz et al. Underwater Microscopy for In Situ Studies of Benthic Ecosystems. Nature Communications (2016).

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