Scientists at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering have created a microscope that has created a new world record for the smallest object the eye can see.
They combined an optical microscope with a transparent microsphere, dubbed the 'microsphere nanoscope' and could see 20 times smaller - 50 nanometres ((5 x 10-8m) - under normal lights.
According to Professor Lin Li and Dr Zengbo Wang, this means that experts can examine the inside of human cells, and examine live viruses for the first time to potentially see what causes them.
The new method has no theoretical limit in the size of feature that can be seen.
The new nano-imaging system is based on capturing optical, near-field virtual images, which are free from optical diffraction, and amplifying them using a microsphere, a tiny spherical particle which is further relayed and amplified by a standard optical microscope.
"This is a world record in terms of how small an optical microscope can go by direct imaging under a light source covering the whole range of optical spectrum," said Li.
"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."
"The common way of seeing tiny items presently is with an electron microscope, and even then you cannot see inside a cell - only the outside. Optical fluoresce microscopes can see inside the cells indirectly by dying them, but these dyes cannot penetrate viruses.
"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 results appear in the journal Nature Communications.