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This Smartphone Microscope Is No Toy

Your molecular biology experiments just got a whole lot more portable. Better yet: Much of this contraption is 3-D printable.

This Smartphone Microscope Is No Toy

Of the various and sundry things a smartphone is useful for, add molecular biology to the list. UCLA engineers have crafted a ½-pound microscope that slides over your smartphone to detect viruses and bacteria for field testing.

The smartphone microscope is the first mobile-attached device to detect single nanoparticles and is able to detect specific and sensitive sub-wavelength (i.e., smaller than the wavelength of light) objects. In other words, it’s about as handy to the layman as any microscope, but to trained medical personnel, it could find lone wolf virus particles in the field, making bivouac scenarios much more sanitary. In one test, the device was able to detect single particles of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), a common virus that can cause birth defects and hasten death for those with weakened immune systems; an HCMV particle is 150-300 nanometers thick, while a human hair is 100,000 nanometers. For the record, that’s a highly precise level of detail for any common lab microscope.

But it’s not just portability: Strapping a network-connected smartphone with a nanoparticle microscope would benefit research and virus/bacteria scans in remote or resource-limited locations. While no assembly price was announced to compare with purpose-built microscopes, some of the device can be 3-D printed. The device includes a color filter, external lens, and a laser diode that illuminates samples at a 75-degree angle, which is oblique enough to avoid scattered light in the final image.

The device was built by a team lead by Aydogan Ozcan, professor of engineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UCLA, who revealed the device in an article published in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano. This is only the latest of Ozcan’s science-assisting phone inventions, from a food allergy-testing phone camera-enabled sensor to a smartphone attachment that can conduct kidney tests. Clearly, the man’s got the smartphone on his mind: He’s the founder of Holomic, LLC, a "mobile microanalysis startup company" that commercializes telemedicine-related innovations licensed by UCLA, and his superteam-esque Ozcan Research Group receives funding from Nokia University Research Funding (along with the Army and Office of Naval Intelligence).

[Image: Flickr user Derek Gavey]