Magnifying the Potential of Mobile Phone Microscopes
If you’re not up on your geeky gadgets, you might have missed the recent spate of mini-microscopes that have surfaced over the past few years. Thanks to widely available consumer electronics, several nifty mobile phone hacks can now allow you to see the world up close. While recent advances put affordable and impressive magnifying power in your pocket, these smaller, cooler microscopes aren’t just gimmicks; they may be the key to revolutionising global medicine and sparking the public’s interest in science.
For several years it’s been possible to accessorize your camera phone with an inexpensive, clip-on 45x or 60x microscope lens. This set-up allows hobbyists to make tiny stop-motion animations, however, the protruding lens looks flimsy and quintuples the thickness of a sleek iPhone.
In March 2011, PLoS One reported a simpler and more compact microscope hack for smartphones. This elegant approach is for the DIYer at heart. It requires only a one millimetre diameter ball lens, a small black rubber ring, and some double-sided sticky tape. Admittedly, you’ll also need a phone with a good camera and some tailor-made software to avoid blurry pictures. But this £12 hack will allow you to capture high-resolution close-ups of everyday objects or even images of medical samples that are good enough to diagnose clinical pathologies, for example iron deficiency.
In contrast to these riffs on conventional microscopes, the past few years have seen considerable buzz about developments in lens-free microscopy. Whereas most microscopes rely on lenses, this requirement has been sidestepped by LUCAS (Lensless, Ultra-wide-field Cell Monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging), a recent innovation from Aydogan Ozcan’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. A small attachment for camera phones, LUCAS consists of an LED light, a light filter, and a groove to hold a microscope slide. This technology takes advantage of the fact that cells are partially transparent. Light passing through the sample on the slide creates shadows, which are then recorded by the phone’s digital camera. Custom software on a PC or smartphone translates the captured data into an image that can be analyzed by a medical worker anywhere in the world.
This past April, the Ozcan group demonstrated in the journal Lab on a Chip, how this technique could be used to diagnose malaria by imaging the parasites in blood smears. In the near future, LUCAS technology could be used to detect tuberculosis bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis), monitor white blood cells from individuals with human immunodeficiency virus infection, and even test water quality or identify waterborne diseases in the field after natural disasters. For this work, Ozcan has received an impressive number of honours, including the National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award in 2010. And it’s not just the technology and plaudits that are inspiring - Ozcan is only 33 years old.
Global medicine and beyond
Miniaturized microscopes are poised to make a big impact in global medicine. When compared to their conventional clunky counterparts, these inexpensive, portable technologies perform well enough to provide medical professionals with enough basic information to aid in complex diagnosis. And thanks to their network connectivity, these devices can be used to improve medical diagnosis in remote locations or developing countries, places that are far from experts and labs.
But mini-microscopes have a variety of creative uses as well. They are likely to change the face of science education by allowing students to take microscopes, rather than magnifying glasses, into the field and bring nature into focus outside of the classroom. Tiny scopes are also a new addition to a growing arsenal of art-related tools. Crafty projects such as the baked treats featured on the 'Not So Humble' Pie blog make science education approachable (and delicious). Likewise, microscope hacks for mobile phones will promote public engagement in science by making it a snap to uncover the true beauty in nature’s details.