Development is a fascinating process that few people have a chance to see, let alone photograph! We recently participated with other scientists from the Crick Institute at a Science Museum Lates in London in February. For our activity, we built these inexpensive platforms that convert a user’s smartphone into a microscope screen.
We provided zebrafish embryos at different developmental stages for visitors to visualize and photograph. We showed visitors how to use the simple platforms that include a lens from a laser pointer for magnification. Once visitors had their phones lined up on the platform, they were able to view individual cells in early stage embryos or structures like the eye, brain, and heart in older specimens. We described the process of development from cell divisions to cell movements, gastrulation and segmentation. We found that the best practice was to mount embryos in sealed, agarose-coated petri dishes. This kept the embryo medium and zebrafish contained and the dishes were easy for visitors to manipulate. We also found that focal plane could be slightly different for various phones; it was helpful for visitors to remove phones from their cases.
Photo credit: Thomas S. G. Farnetti/Wellcome Images
Visitors were very excited to be able to take images like these with their smartphones. The event produced several shares on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram of pictures of zebrafish.
Photo credit: Alexis Webb
These microscope platforms are affordable and portable, making them suitable for demonstrations in schools and classrooms. Because they don’t require any power, they can be used outdoors or in areas that do not have electrical outlets. Imaging other types of live specimens is also possible. We hope that other researchers interested in showing off their model organism will consider using this type of low-tech, but high reward activity!