The specimen is illuminated with light of a specific wavelength (or wavelengths) which is absorbed by the fluorophores, causing them to emit light of longer wavelengths (i.e., of a different color than the absorbed light). The illumination light is separated from the much weaker emitted fluorescence through the use of a spectral emission filter. Typical components of a fluorescence microscope are a light source (xenon arc lamp or mercury-vapor lamp), the excitation filter, the dichroic mirror (or dichroic beamsplitter), and the emission filter(see figure below). The filters and the dichroic are chosen to match the spectral excitation and emission characteristics of the fluorophore used to label the specimen. In this manner, the distribution of a single fluorophore (color) is imaged at a time. Multi-color images of several types of fluorophores must be composed by combining several single-color images.
Most fluorescence microscopes in use are epifluorescence microscopes (i.e., excitation and observation of the fluorescence are from above (epi–) the specimen). These microscopes have become an important part in the field of biology, opening the doors for more advanced microscope designs, such as the confocal microscope and the total internal reflection fluorescence microscope (TIRF).
Schematic of a fluorescence microscope.
The majority of fluorescence microscopes, especially those used in the life sciences, are of the epifluorescence design shown in the diagram. Light of the excitation wavelength is focused on the specimen through the objective lens. The fluorescence emitted by the specimen is focused to the detector by the same objective that is used for the excitation which for greatest sensitivity will have a very high numerical aperture. Since most of the excitation light is transmitted through the specimen, only reflected excitatory light reaches the objective together with the emitted light and the epifluorescence method therefore gives a high signal to noise ratio. An additional barrier filter between the objective and the detector can filter out the remaining excitation light from fluorescent light.
Fluorescence microscopy requires intense, near-monochromatic, illumination which some widespread light sources, like halogen lampscannot provide. Three main types of light source are used; xenon arc lamp or mercury-vapor lamps with an excitation filter, lasers and high-power LEDs. Lasers are most widely used for more complex fluorescence microscopy techniques like confocal microscopy and total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy while xenon and mercury lamps with an excitation filter or LEDs are commonly used for widefield epifluorescence microscopes.
A sample of herring sperm stained with SYBR green in a cuvette illuminated by blue light in an epifluorescence microscope. The SYBR green in the sample binds to the herring sperm DNA and, once bound, fluoresces giving off green light when illuminated by blue light.
In order for a sample to be suitable for fluorescence microscopy it must be fluorescent. There are several methods of creating a fluorescent sample; the main techniques are labelling with fluorescent stains or, in the case of biological samples, expression of a fluorescent protein. Alternatively the intrinsic fluorescence of a sample (i.e., autofluorescence) can be used.In the life sciences fluorescence microscopy is a powerful tool which allows the specific and sensitive staining of a specimen in order to detect the distribution of proteins or other molecules of interest. As a result there is a diverse range of techniques for fluorescent staining of biological samples.