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White-light diffraction tomography of unlabelled live cells


We present a technique called white-light diffraction tomography (WDT) for imaging microscopic transparent objects such as live unlabelled cells. The approach extends diffraction tomography to white-light illumination and imaging rather than scattering plane measurements. Our experiments were performed using a conventional phase contrast microscope upgraded with a module to measure quantitative phase images. The axial dimension of the object was reconstructed by scanning the focus through the object and acquiring a stack of phase-resolved images. We reconstructed the three-dimensional structures of live, unlabelled, red blood cells and compared the results with confocal and scanning electron microscopy images. The 350 nm transverse and 900 nm axial resolution achieved reveals subcellular structures at high resolution in Escherichia coli cells. The results establish WDT as a means for measuring three-dimensional subcellular structures in a non-invasive and label-free manner.

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Figure 1: The scattering problem.
Figure 2: WDT of RBCs.
Figure 3: WDT of E. coli cells.
Figure 4: WDT of HT29 cells.
Figure 5: Illustration of data acquisition.


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This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (grants CBET-1040462 MRI, CBET 08-46660 CAREER) and the Science and Technology Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS, CBET-0939511). The authors thank R. Bashir and K. Park for providing HT29 cells, I. Golding and M. Bednarz for providing E. coli cells and S. Robinson for assistance with SEM imaging of RBCs. The authors also thank J. Howard, K. Khairy and J.-J. Foo for providing confocal images of RBCs. R.Z. acknowledges support from the Beckman Foundation through a Beckman Graduate Fellowship. For more information, visit

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G.P., R.Z. and S.D.B. proposed the idea. G.P., R.Z., T.K. and P.S.C. developed the theoretical description of the method. T.K. and R.Z. performed three-dimensional PSF calculations. T.K. and M.M. performed quantitative phase imaging. S.D.B. and M.M. developed the sparse deconvolution method. T.K. and R.Z. performed data analysis and three-dimensional reconstruction. G.P. and L.L.G. supervised the research. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gabriel Popescu.

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Competing interests

G.P. has financial interest in Phi Optics, Inc., a company developing quantitative phase imaging technology for materials and life science applications, which, however, did not sponsor the research.

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Kim, T., Zhou, R., Mir, M. et al. White-light diffraction tomography of unlabelled live cells. Nature Photon 8, 256–263 (2014).

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