Caltech engineers built an ingenious Petri dish from Lego blocks that uses a cell phone image sensor and a smartphone light to send pictures of what's happening inside the dish directly to scientists' laptops.

Here's how it works (see it in action above): Scientists place a sample on an image-sensor chip, which uses an Android phone's LED screen as a light source. They then place the whole device in an incubator and connect the chip to a laptop with a cable. Software on the laptop organizes the images.

Lego Blocks Plus Smartphone Equals Super Smart Petri Dish

It sounds so simple and looks like a toy. But it could significantly (and inexpensively!) streamline cell culture experiments (which means any cells, from bacteria to stem cells, grown in a controlled environment) in several ways:

1. Because the device sends images directly to a laptop, scientists don't have to move the cells they're studying to look at them under a microscope, which means less chance of contaminating the sample.

2. Scientists can observe many samples at once, rather than checking out one at a time under a microscope.

3. The image sensor snaps hundreds of pictures of the cells growing in real time. Then they're stitched together on the laptop, creating a high resolution image. So researchers get see the big picture of what's happening in the dish, rather than focusing on a tiny part with a microscope.

The scientists say number three will be particularly interesting for studying stem cells, which move around a lot and transform into various types of cells. And they report that the resolution is similar to a traditional microscope-you can make out the inside of cell nuclei.

The CalTech researcher published details on the prototype in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Technology Review via BoingBoing; Image: Guoan Zheng, California Institute of Technology]