Scientists peering through microscopes at slides with of cells could soon eliminate some of the pipetting, slides, coverslips and even the traditional light microscope used to view them. Cutting back on some of these steps will not only save time but will reduce risk of culture contamination.

Meet the ePetri dish, developed by researchers at Caltck. According to the release, conventional use of a petri dish requires that the cells being cultured be placed in an incubator to grow. As the sample grows, it is removed — often numerous times — from the incubator to be studied under a microscope. ePetri does away with the microscope, reduces lab labor time and improves observation of cells growing in real time.

ePetri Eliminates Need for Microscope, Reduces Lab Labor Time

Traditional petri dish growing bacteria. (Photo: AP)

ePetri Eliminates Need for Microscope, Reduces Lab Labor Time

ePetri (Photo: Guoan Zheng/Caltech)

Popular Science has more:

The new device [..] uses an imaging chip from a mobile phone camera, a smartphone and Lego blocks. The imaging chip acts as the petri dish in the traditional sense, holding the cell culture beneath a sheet of protective plastic. The square chip is placed inside a platform made of Legos, and an Android phone hooks in place on top. The phone’s LED screen is used as a scanning light source, illuminating the image sensor.

The whole thing goes inside an incubator, and a cable connects to a computer outside, which reads the image sensor. This allows researchers to watch cell growth in real time — no extra cell transport, pipetting or external microscopes required. Watch a video below to see how well the system works.

“Our ePetri dish is a compact, small, lens-free microscopy imaging platform. We can directly track the cell culture or bacteria culture within the incubator,” explains Guoan Zheng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in electrical engineering at Caltech, in the release. “The data from the ePetri dish automatically transfers to a computer outside the incubator by a cable connection. Therefore, this technology can significantly streamline and improve cell culture experiments by cutting down on human labor and contamination risks.”

ePetri Eliminates Need for Microscope, Reduces Lab Labor Time

Basic light microscope, which through ePetri technology isn't needed by scientists to view the cells cultured. (Photo: CE Instrumentation)

Other Caltech researchers, according to the release, have already starting used the new petri dishes to observe embryonic stem cells. This relatively simple technology improves visibility and can capture images that even expensive light microscopes cannot.

“With ePetri, you can survey the entire field at once, but still maintain the ability to ‘zoom in’ to any cells of interest,” said Michael Elowitz, Caltech biologist and coauthor of the study. “In this regard, perhaps it’s a bit like an episode of CSI where they zoom in on what would otherwise be unresolvable details in a photograph.”

Elowitz compared using a traditional light microscope to putting up blinders and limiting your field of view.

The developers believe ePetri could be used as labs-on-a-chip or other portable diagnostic.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time that a smartphone has been used for microscopic purposes. Last week, The Blaze reported a doctor developed a rudimentary technique for using a smartphone as a microscope in the field when access to microscopes in a lab is not an option.