Changing the World with a 50-Cent Paper Microscope

Anyone who has spent time in a lab has likely hunched over a microscope at some point. They are standard instruments for visualizing and investigating small objects. The problem is that microscopes are relatively large and expensive, which can be a barrier to people with an interest in science or microscopy but who can’t afford this bulky piece of equipment. This can also make work outside of the lab challenging, especially if you find yourself trying to explore something tiny out in the middle of a jungle or in an under-developed country.

This is where the “Foldscope” comes in, a device developed by the Prakash Lab at Stanford University . This origami-based optical microscope weighs in at a whopping 8.8 grams (less than two nickels), is small enough to fit in a pocket, and costs less than one dollar.

foldscope startThe Foldscope initially arrives as a sheet of paper with two primary fold-out parts. Just pop these out, follow the instructions (it comes with an instruction manual as well as online video step-by-step instructions) and the set up is complete in less than ten minutes.

folscope doneThe final product is a 70 x 20 x 2 mm³ microscope platform. The Foldscope kit also comes with a low-magnification lens, a high-magnification lens, magnetic strips (allows for connection to a cell phone), and a light module. Slides are inserted into the platform and samples are viewed through a micro-lens while you can pan and focus with your thumbs.

This device could provide important opportunities for examining specimens in the field as well as screening and diagnostics for disease-causing agents. For instance, the Foldscope can be used to detect:

  • Plasmodium falciparum (parasitic protozoan that causes malaria)
  • Leishmania donovani (parasitic protozoan that causes leishmaniasis)
  • Eschleria coli (bacterium that can cause painful abdominal cramping and severe, sometimes bloody, diarrhea)
  • Trypanosoma cruzi (parasitic protozoan that causes Chagas disease)
  • Human sickle cell
  • And much more

By removing cost barriers, the researchers hope that the Foldscope will provide new opportunities for a broad user base in both science education and field work for science and medicine.

size comparison banana Size comparison of a stereo microscope (top) the Foldscope (bottom left) and banana for scale (bottom right)

foldscope images 4The Foldscope can also be connected to a standard smartphone for taking images or video. Here are a few images taken using the low-mag lens (140X magnification) on an Android phone: cells of a leaf (top left), sugar crystals (top right), a phytoseiid mite from my garden (bottom left), and celery stalk (bottom right). I think my preparation of the slides could be improved to produce better images, but all-in-all I’m still amazed that these were taken using a paper-based 50-cent microscope.

Another important point that the authors bring up is that many children have never used a microscope, even in developed countries like the United States. A universal program providing a “microscope for every child” could help to foster an interest in science at an early age. They hope to make microscopes approachable, accessible, and inspire children to examine biodiversity on our planet as amateur microscopists and to make discoveries of their own.

Overall, I’m pretty excited about this device. It’s cheap, it’s simple, and it works – but this invention required an amazing amount of research and engineering by the Stanford group. I’ll be bringing the Foldscope with me on my next trip to the Peruvian Amazon and hope to investigate some interesting small organisms while there. Stay tuned!



Citation: Cybulski JS, Clements J, Prakash M (2014) Foldscope: Origami-Based Paper Microscope. PLoS ONE 9(6): e98781. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098781


You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronPomerantz and the Stanford researchers @PrakashLab

[This post originally appeared on Rainforest Expeditions]

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Manu Prakash says:

    @Aaron: can’t wait to see you post from the rainforest Aaron. Who knows what you will find 🙂 I have been collecting data from Panama; and specially categorizing sub-mm insects. Would be fun to compare notes. Where do you typically work/visit?

  2. Aaron says:

    I conduct field work at the Tambopata Research Center, located in Southeastern Peru. I haven’t spent as much time looking at sub-mm fauna but I’d love to pay a little more attention to them now, especially with neotropical Acari (mites). I’d definitely like to chat more about some of your collecting data!

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