$1 origami microscope powers discovery [video]

Stanford University inventor Manu Prakash remembers visiting a field station in Thailand in 2011 that had an expensive microscope that no one ever used for fear of breaking it.

So Prakash, along with a peer, developed the Foldscope: a paper kit that anyone could fold into a powerful microscope in seven minutes. The process is similar to origami, the art of paper folding.

The Foldscope is light and rugged enough to go anywhere. Its tiny lenses can magnify objects 2,000 times. Best of all, it costs less than the equivalent of $1.

The Foldscope can view objects as small as .7 microns — most cells are several microns in size. This unlocks a whole new world of discovery.

Foldscope images (Cybulski et al./PLOS ONE)
Sample images, including parasites and bacteria (top left), as well as a ladybug leg (bottom right) (Cybulski et al./PLOS ONE)

Already, it’s fueling imaginations around the world. Prakash sent 50,000 Foldscopes to volunteers in 130 countries.

In Lagos, Nigeria, Prakash introduced Foldscopes to a group of students, most of whom had never seen a microscope. The class caught a mosquito and started passing around the slide — the insect’s alien-looking proboscis, its hollow mouth tube, still red with blood. Prakash said it brought into focus a lesson on mosquitoes, malaria and bed nets that can prevent malaria.

“It’s not good enough to read about it,” said Prakash, who teaches bioengineering at Stanford University in California. “You have to experience it.”

Prakash hopes to ship 1 million Foldscopes to students around the world by the end of 2017. “In the end, we believe that every kid in the world should carry a microscope in his/her pocket,” Prakash said. “Just like a pencil.”