For physicians working in remote areas without access to laboratory technology, having easy access to a microscope could mean faster, potentially life-saving diagnoses.

If it were a tool that many of these scientists already had, it would be even better. Well, many of them already have it strapped to their hip.

NPR reports physicists have begun researching technology to turn a smartphone into a microscope, an idea that started when a drop of water settled on the phone’s camera lens:

A few years ago, [Sebastian] Wachsmann-Hogiu [at the Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis] was thinking about creating tools to help doctors do tests right at the site where they’re caring for patients, something called “point-of-care testing.”

He’d heard about bioengineer Daniel Fletcher’s work developing a low-tech mobile microscope called CellScope. But Wachsmann-Hogiu was interested in making something even simpler. And he noticed that when water droplets formed on the top of his iPhone camera, they magnified the image. So he took a tiny lens — just 1 millimeter in diameter — and attached it to the phone to try to get a similar effect.

“With that we were able to record great microscopic images,” he tells Shots. His team set out to test a range of lenses between 1 and 3 millimeters that would get different magnification. The smaller the lens, the more it magnifies.

“We found that the small lenses are good for microscopy of blood cells while the larger lenses could be good for skin and dermatological applications,” he says.

Scientists Turn Smartphone Into Microscope, Spectrometer

Upper row: images from a traditional microscope. Bottom row: images from a cell phone microscope. (Image: Smith ZJ, Chu K, Espenson AR, Rahimzadeh M, Gryshuk A, et al.)

Wachsmann-Hogiu and his colleagues went one step further and even created an attachment that would help turn the phone into a spectrometer using a plastic tube, black electrical tap and the camera’s light:

The tape has narrow slits that allow beams of light from a blood sample, for example, to enter and exit the tube. This grating smears, or spreads, the light into a spectrum of colors that doctors could use like a fingerprint to identify various molecules.

In a medical setting, the smartphone spectrometer could be used to measure oxygen levels in the blood. Levels that are too low or too high can be a clue that something else is wrong with the heart or many other organs.

Scientists Turn Smartphone Into Microscope, Spectrometer

Top panel, cropped image recorded by the cell phone spectrometer pointed at a standard fluorescent light fixture. White box indicates area used to determine spectrum in lower panel. Lower panel (top), an image of the spectrum corresponding to area in the white box in the top panel. Lower panel (bottom), a comparison of the spectra of the same fluorescent light fixture taken with both the cell phone spectrometer (blue) and Ocean Optics (oo) spectrometer (red). (Image: Smith ZJ, Chu K, Espenson AR, Rahimzadeh M, Gryshuk A, et al.)

NPR reports that even the simplest smartphone with a camera of one to two megapixels will be able to serve in these roles. Next, Wachsmann-Hogiu will be testing this technology in the field to see how effective it could actually be in rural areas.