Ten thousand 'print-and-fold' paper microscopes initially designed as low-cost medical diagnostic tools are being given away to researchers and citizen scientists who come up with novel ways to use them to test their ideas.
The goal of the Ten Thousand Microscopes initiative, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is to create a crowdsourced lab manual for Foldscope, the low-cost microscope launched earlier this year by a US bioengineering team that combines pragmatic, origami design with sophisticated micro-optics.
The idea is to make "microscopy for everyone", says Manu Prakash, a bioengineering researcher at Stanford University, United States, who led the development of the frugal innovation to address the lack of cheap, easy-to-use diagnostic tools for diseases in remote and impoverished communities.
Assembled from a single sheet of paper, Foldscope microscopes are fitted with tiny ball lenses - about the size of a grain of salt - that can magnify samples up to 2,000 times.
Yet, as well as being lightweight, Foldscope is durable and, at roughly 50 US cents each, cheap enough to manufacture and distribute on a large scale, according to Prakash.
"We wanted to find a method by which we could manufacture [microscopes] in large enough quantities and at an extremely low cost, while keeping the design simple so that they could last out in the field and be used by anyone," he says.
Foldscope is undergoing field trials in India and Uganda as a diagnostic tool for malaria, sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis, with the results due to be published later this year.
And the Stanford team is developing 30 Foldscope variants to target specific pathogens and diseases by using add-ons such as LED lights and fluorescent filters.
But the microscope's potential applications are virtually limitless, says Prakash, who describes the innovation as a "platform technology".
"The impact [of Foldscope] will ultimately be driven by developing new applications that are context-specific," he says. "Scale-up will really be about getting the right sets of communities to engage and build an initial set of examples."
Platform technologies such as Foldscope that are easy to adapt for local use have great potential for successful scale-up, says Ali Jazairy, who is senior counsellor for the innovation and technology sector at the World Intellectual Property Organization.
"These kinds of 'appropriate technologies' can become very useful because they are very simple, which means they can be easily adapted to local contexts," he says. "This innovative, folded approach - that is almost playful - is also a good example of how science can be integrated into everyday technologies and made accessible."
About 7,000 potential testers from more than 30 countries have already responded to the open call to develop new Foldscope experiments, according to Prakash, with proposals ranging from using the microscopes to test for diseases in bee populations to using it as a low-cost way of monitoring pathogens in milk in Mongolia.
"The response has been phenomenal," says Prakash. "People have dreamt up applications for Foldscope I never would have thought of."
Ultimately, Prakash hopes citizen scientists will use Foldscope to solve development problems.
"It's very important to me to connect hands-on science education with global health issues," he says. "This is the much bigger challenge. The technology is a small piece of the entire solution and engaging people is as important. We need a much broader group of people thinking about global challenges."