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Tiny, cheap microscope invented

9th June 2009

A new type of 'optofluidic' microscope could speed up cost effective medicine and science in third world countries.

microscope1

The inspiration for the device came from observing the way small particles of dust cause people to see eye floaters.

When bright light shines on tiny debris that floats inside the eye, it casts a shadow onto the retina.

Observing the same biological process led Changhuei Yang at the California Institute of Technology to design a microscope that is smaller and cheaper to produce than ever before.

If the microscope were to be mass produced, it could cost as little as US$10 per unit.

The microscope works in conjunction with image processing software that does not require a specialised computer system.

Yang said that the microscope could change science in the same way that the integrated circuit has transformed the personal computing industry.

He said that until people started mass-producing transistors, circuits cost much more money to produce than they do today, and that his new microscope opens up the opportunity to do experiments that would have been more difficult before.

He said that researchers could put anywhere from 10 to 100 microscopes onto a single chip operating in parallel on a large number of samples.

If a parallel processing method were used to observe thousands of types of minute changes to the human cell, the microscope could aid scientists' understanding of the way it functions.

The microscope works by allowing the sample to cast a shadow directly on to an array of commercial light sensors.

When the sensors record the projection pattern, they transmit it to a computer via a standard USB port.

Possible applications of the new microscope include drug assays and genomic or proteomic screens.

Charles DiMarzio of the Optical Science Laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston said that the new microscope and its method is a way of making a microscope that is very low cost behave as if it were high powered.

Yang's microscope does away with lenses altogether, and bypasses the 5 millimeter sensitivity limit of a digital light-sensing chip.

The invention has the resolution of a laboratory light microscope and can capture images of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.

The microscope could boost medicine research in developing countries, since it works with sunlight and would only require standard laptop computer to run.

Yang said that the microscope could be a boon for a health worker who needs to travel from village to village.

The research has drawn the interest of Ricardio Leitão, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University School of Medicine who is trying to design telemedicine systems for third world countries.

Yang and Leitão are now attempting to apply the microscope to the diagnosis of malaria.


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