Rewriting Life

Wired Petri Dish Gives Real-Time Updates

Researcher says “it’s like getting continuous tweets from the cells rather than an occasional postcard.”

A new prototype petri dish can create an image of what’s growing on it and send that information to a laptop, all from inside an incubator. The prototype, dubbed the ePetri, was created from Lego blocks and a cell-phone image sensor, and uses light from a Google Android smart phone.

A smart petri dish: Cells are grown directly on top of ePetri’s image sensor, the same type used in cell phones.

“Normally, one leaves the cells in an incubator and just checks up on them from time to time,” says Michael Elowitz, a professor of biology at Caltech, who coauthored the paper. “With ePetri, it’s like getting continuous tweets from the cells rather than an occasional postcard.”

A sample is placed on top of a small image-sensor chip, which uses an Android phone’s LED screen as a light source. The whole device is placed in an incubator, and the image-sensor chip connects to a laptop outside through a wire. As the image sensor snaps pictures of the cells growing in real time, the laptop stitches hundreds of images together to create a high-resolution picture of what is happening on the dish.

The resolution is similar to a traditional microscope—fine enough to see the contents of cell nuclei, says senior author Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at Caltech. The prototype was described in a paper appearing online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Peering into cells while they stay in the incubator has a number of benefits. For one, each device is its own lens-free microscope, meaning that many samples can be monitored at once automatically on the laptop. In addition, instead of using a microscope that can only focus on one tiny part of a sample, researchers get a picture of what’s happening on the entire petri dish at the same time—something that would help a lot with stem cells, which often change into different types of cells and move around.

The team is also working on a self-contained system with its own incubator that could eventually stay as a desktop diagnostic tool in a doctor’s office, so bacterial samples wouldn’t have to be sent out to a lab for testing.

“The low cost allows you to think creatively about how this will be used in the future,” says Jeffrey Morgan, a professor at Brown University who was not involved in the study. For example, the new device could cut down on time and cost for high-throughput drug screening, and create cheaper diagnostic tools. 

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