Microtomes are pretty simple devices. They're basically glorified deli slicers, after all, but instead of slicing roast beef to make some dude a sandwich, you're slicing (or sectioning, if you want to be technical) a chunk of that dude's kidney. More or less.
Nevertheless, there are things to consider before you hit buy. Here's a few of those factors.
Before you start shopping around, make sure you know these two key things:
- the type of tissues you'll be sectioning
- the type of microscopy you'll be using
While a rotary microtome with a standard blade configuration is sufficient for many types of samples, you may need a more advanced model depending on your application. For instance, if you're going to be sectioning fatty tissue, you'll need a vibrating microtome. Similarly, you should pick up a saw microtome instead of a rotary microtome if you're going to be sectioning bone.
Additionally, the type of microscopy you'll be using to examine the sections will be another important factor in finding a microtome. Different types of microscopy require different section thicknesses in order to illuminate and view the sample properly.
Let's take transmission electron microscopy (TEM) for example. TEM requires that sections must be thinner than 150nm — which is considerably slimmer than the 30µm that standard rotary microtomes produce! As such, you'll need to purchase an ultramicrotome — the only type capable of producing intact <150nm sections.
Finally, your sample may need to be sectioned in a cryogenic environment. If so, you'll need a cryostat microtome — basically, a rotary microtome mounted inside a controlled cryogenic chamber. We always have several cryostats available here at New Life Scientific; feel free to browse our inventory.
Frequency of use
Knowing how much you'll use your new microtome on a daily basis can help you determine two things: an appropriate budget, and the essential features.
Generally, the more you use and depend on any piece of equipment, the more you should be willing to spend on it. So if your lab has demanding throughput and you'll be running that microtome constantly, don't be afraid to drop serious cash on a premium model. It will be worth it several times over in the long run.
Additionally, with a bigger budget comes better features. And let's be honest: the last thing anyone wants to do is spend all day spinning a handwheel, manually sectioning sample after sample. If your lab is particularly dependent on microtomy, it may be worth the investment to purchase a fully automatic microtome, like the Tissue-Tek AutoSection 5000. The comfortable experience of a fully automated microtome will benefit your lab techs, and the speedy, high-quality sectioning will benefit your patients.
While most of the people reading this article have no need to worry about the reliability of their lab's electrical power, infrastructure is an important thing to consider for those working out of remote clinics, such as those in underdeveloped countries or deep in rural areas.
If your facility can't guarantee 100% electrical power uptime, you should err on the side of caution and opt for a non-powered, fully manual microtome so you can continue sectioning even during power outages. It may also be prudent to equip your microtome with a permanent blade instead of a disposable blade as fresh blades may not be readily available, which brings us to our next point of consideration.
Almost as important as the microtome itself, the blade is an essential factor to consider. There are two primary types of blades: permanent and disposable.
Permanent blades are designed to be used long-term and sharpened regularly. As mentioned, this is ideal for labs that may not have easy access to new blades. However, permanent blades don't cut quite as cleanly as their disposable counterparts, so the majority of labs have shifted to solely using disposable blades. Users also save time with disposable blades as they never have to sharpen them.
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