Now You Can Make Movies of Living Cells With Your Smartphone!

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Democratizing Cellular Time-Lapses with a Cell-Phone!

A group of researchers from Uppsala University have recently developed an affordable system capable of capturing time-lapse videos of living cells under various conditions. Dubbed the affordable time-lapse imaging and incubation system (ATLIS), the system can be constructed out of off-the-shelf electronic components and 3D-printed parts while using a standard smartphone for imaging.

Upgrade a microscope with 3D printed parts, off-the-shelf electronics and a smartphone. Credit: Linda Koffmar, Uppsala University
Upgrade a microscope with 3D printed parts, off-the-shelf electronics and a smartphone. Credit: Linda Koffmar, Uppsala University

While there have been other microscope adapters for smartphones to enable easy image capturing, the ATLIS is much more than microscope smartphone adapters. It is optimised in order to convert old microscopes found in abundance in Universities and hospitals into full-fledged time-lapse systems to image cell dynamics. Such a system requires strict environmental control of temperature, pH, osmolarity and light exposure in order to maintain normal cell behaviour.

Schematic of the ATLIS system, detailing the different components that enable imaging and temperature regulation. Source: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0167583.g001
Schematic of the ATLIS system, detailing the different components that enable imaging and temperature regulation. Source: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0167583.g001

The ATLIS represents a solid first step as it is capable of regulating temperature using a combination of temperature sensors, an Arduino micro-controller and other cheap electronic components. The integration of an on-board incubation module also enables easy integration of different cell culture wares such as plates, dishes and microfluidic systems. The ATLIS is also bluetooth-enabled, with both imaging and temperature regulation done in-app on the same phone.

In an interview with Dr Johan Kreuger, he elaborated on the significance of the project as well as future implications for science in resource-scarce regions, describing this project as “part of the do it yourself revolution…that will make it easier for researchers in developing countries to do high-quality research”. The team’s decision to publish all the results along with the full schematics of the device and MIT App inventor parameters in PLOSone, an open access journal, is a clear sign of practising what Dr Kreuger has preached.

The contribution of the team from Uppsala University to open source science cannot be understated. While the group is definitely not the first to utilize 3D printing to fill a lab need cheaply (other groups have made things ranging from test tube holders to gel boats and combs), it definitely represents an advancement in such initiatives as it pushes them from purely structural 3D printable solutions to systems with more advanced functions. The ATLIS is a great starting point for researchers to build upon to propel both their own research as well as the development of low-cost open-source scientific equipment.

The press release from Uppsala University can be found here, and the full article can be found here.