Mobile phone microscopy

RESEARCHERS at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a microscope attachment which enables a standard mobile phone with a camera to be used for high-resolution clinical microscopy. Daniel Fletcher and his colleagues describe the CellScope in a paper published today in the open access journal PLoS One, and demonstrate that it can be used to capture high quality bright field images of the malaria parasite and sickle blood cells, as well as fluorescence images of cells infected with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. The device could potentially become an important tool for medical diagnostics in the developing world, where resources are limited and laboratory facilities scarce, but where mobile phone networks are ubiquitous.

The working prototype shown here consists of a compact optical microscope mounted onto a Nokia N73 mobile phone equipped with a 3.2 megapixel camera. With cheap eyepieces and objective lenses, the device has a magnification of up to 50X and an estimated resolution of 1.2 µm (micrometres, or thousandths of a millimeter). This is sufficient for direct observation of abnormally-shaped red blood cells which are characteristic of sickle-cell anemia (below left) and of cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. By attaching filters which block out background light and a simple light-emitting diode (LED) which emits light of a specific wavelength, the CellScope can also detect, in samples of sputum, the green fluorescent dye which is used to stain cells infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

cellphone microscope

Using CellScope, minimally trained health care workers could therefore capture images from samples obtained from patients, and transmit them wirelessly to a clinic so that they can be examined properly by an expert diagnostician. The evaluation of samples could also be performed in real-time whilst the patient is still in the presence of the health care worker, by treating samples with rapid staining techniques and then using a specialized Java-based image processing and analysis program called ImageJ for automated sample counting, so that, for example, the number of bacteria present in a sample can be determined almost immediately.

The device could be produced very cheaply as it uses simple components and expands on the capabilites of standard mobile phones while using the existing communication infrastructure. The use of LEDs – which have a lifespan of about 50,000 hours – makes it particilarly suited to clinical applications in the developing world as well as in rural areas, where replacement parts might be expensive or unavailable. CellScope could also provide remote access to digitized health records, and would be amenable to epidemiological studies, using triangulation or global positioning system location data, such that outbreaks could be monitored as they happen.


Breslauer, D. N. et al (2009). Mobile Phone Based Clinical Microscopy for Global Health Applications PLoS One  4(7): e6320. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006320.

12 thoughts on “Mobile phone microscopy

  1. I very rarely use the expression ‘awesome!’ but this certainly is. As you suggest, I can see this having almost immediate effects for medical intervention in less-developed countries or even emergency measures.
    The possibilities of interaction with the GPS capabilities of the phone itself for triangulation etc. is sheer genius.

  2. There are more and more of this sort of “reappropriation” of common commercial devices going on every day. I still like using a CD drive as a spectrometer.
    The tech in cell phones is incredible. As good (if not better) than even the stuff military labs have come up with. The economies of scale make it incredibly cheap (for what it is/does) too. For making electronics, the per unit cost looks something like 1/x where x is the number of units being made.
    I’ve been working with distributed acoustic sensors for monitoring animal behaviour. A smart phone is >90% of the way to having all the capabilities of the custom hardware we developed in a cheaper, smaller, and lower power package. Unfortunately, that last 10% isn’t something that we can graft onto current phones very easily… Though I’m expecting that to change in the near future.

  3. Ummm … a micrometer is a millionth of a meter, not thousandth. Otherwise, thanks. I have a little pocket microscope and when I get home I’m going to see if I can rig something up to hold it up to my Nokia N95 5 Mp camera.

  4. Cool… I put my cell phone up to the pocket microscope that I got for $13 at Thinkgeek (hope I’m not breaking any rules plugging them… no connection) and it worked not badly at all. I’m going to have to build some sort of holder to keep the alignment. This is very cool… time to take pics of buds with my granddaughter!

  5. Thanks for this post. My friend living near the Eiffel Tower may need to look into this. However, I am skeptical at drug companies and their promises. I wonder if this will be another one of those “lifetime treatments” or cures

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