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Phone-Based Microscope Developed for Water Testing

Giardia lamblia parasite

Giardia lamblia parasite (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

8 November 2016. An engineering lab at University of Houston in Texas designed an inexpensive lens that when placed over a smartphone’s camera, turns the phone into a microscope. The lab led by Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received a $100,00 grant from National Science Foundation to recruit secondary school students to use the device for analyzing water samples in their communities to document waterborne pathogens.

The University of Houston team developed the smartphone attachment known as DotLens that allows for magnification and high resolution of microscope images, 2 to 3 microns, using the phone’s camera. The lens is made with a polymer derived from a natural rubber-like compound, produced with 3-D printing. DotLens simply sticks onto the smartphone lens, but can be easily removed and shared.

Shih started a spin-off company from his lab, Dr. Shih LLC, to commercialize DotLens. The company produces 3 types of lenses, ranging from 15X to 60X magnification, and retailing for $12.99 to $18.99. Dr.Shih LLC is marketing the lens mainly to education markets for science labs in secondary schools and universities.

The NSF grant is a funding large-scale educational project using DotLens. The 1-year initiative is recruiting secondary school students to use DotLens with their smartphones, and an attachment providing a narrow-band light source, to capture images from water samples in their local communities. Shih’s lab is also writing a smartphone app for analyzing the presence of microbes in the samples.

The project is looking specifically for 2 parasites, Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium parvum, that enter the body through nose or mouth and are major causes of diarrheal waterborne diseases in the U.S. Both parasites are spread in drinking water and are protected by outer shells that enable them to live for long periods outside the body, while making them tolerant of chlorine disinfection. A Cryptosporidium parvum outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993 sickened some 400,000 people, about a quarter of the city’s population.

“The goal,” says Shih in a university statement, “is to have citizens help to investigate and monitor water quality near where they live, while educating people about potential threats in environmental or drinking water.” He adds that the project, “is like completing a puzzle with a community of citizen scientists who share similar interests.”

The following video tells more about DotLens.

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