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New microscope produces stunning, technicolor movies of cells in action

These striking images give a never-before-seen view of the inner workings of cells.

They were created using a revolutionary new microscope developed over ten years by Eric Betzig, a physicist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and one of the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The imaging process, called lattice light sheet microscopy, uses a novel approach to visualizing cells. Rather than hitting a target with a single, intense beam of light from above, as traditional microscopes do, the lattice light sheet method emits a strip of light from the side, illuminating a sliver of the specimen along one plane, snapping a photo, then moving quickly to another plane. The microscope can take pictures of 1,000 planes per second, which can be combined into a high-resolution 3D video like the one above, which shows the rapid muscle contractions of an earthworm embryo.

"This microscope is all about seeing things quickly, seeing things in 3D and seeing them without harming them," Betzig told CBS News.

Traditional microscopes are not fast enough to capture images of cellular processes in motion. They take pictures of moment in time. What's more, the strength of light they use, focused for an extended period in one spot, can damage cells, essentially burning them.

Lattice light sheet microscopy is fast enough to photograph cells in time with what's happening inside them, Betzig said, "so you can see it in a continuous fashion -- not like an old style jerky film" in which actors' movements are halted and unnatural.

He likens it to the difference between seeing three photos of a football game and trying to figure out the rules versus watching it on an HD TV.

By moving the light quickly from plane to plane, and because the light is spread out in a sheet rather than concentrated in a beam, the technology also protects cells from damage, so they can be photographed for longer.

The resolution on the images is not as high as those created with photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM), which Betzig developed in 2006 and for which he won the Nobel Prize. PALM broke through theoretical limits to see things on a smaller scale than ever thought possible, but "there are tradeoffs to be able to do that," Betzig said, referring to the microscope's inability to take many picture in a short span. "For lattice light sheet microscopy, it was about speed instead of resolution."

The results of Betzig's work appeared in the October 24, 20014 issue of the journal Science.