No microscope? A smart solution

I recently saw a bit of a buzz on twitter about being able to turn your smartphone into a microscope using just a drop of water on the camera. Since water refracts light differently to air, the drop of water magnifies the image that is travelling to the camera lens. Last week I accumulated some microscope slides to look at – but my lab has no microscope! It seemed the perfect time to try out this smartphone trick. It worked beautifully, and so I was quick to tell anyone who would listen to have a go. Microscopy can be essential in many projects that are going on here at the John Innes Centre – so a few of us on the blog team thought we’d share with you our smartphone microscopy photos – with a bit of a background so you know what you’re looking at of course!


Eragostis tef aka teff or lovegrass

Eragrostis tef (aka teff or lovegrass) is one of the smallest cereal grains in the world, with a similar size to poppy seeds. In this image the top grain has been stained with iodine; the blue/back colour shows that the grain is full of starch. This grain is used to make an Ethiopian beer called tella. It has similarities to the barley grains that are used in the malting process for the production of beer, whisky and malt products like maltesers. Because of its small size Teff is useful for high throughput screening of chemicals capable of interfering with the malting (grain germination) process. Once these chemicals are identified they can be used as tools to better understand the malting process.


Bacteroids inside a pea root nodule

Plants in the legume family, such as peas and beans, have a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria. These bacteria live as a differentiated form inside ‘nodules’ on the roots of these plants. The differentiated bacteria – known as bacteroids – carry out a reaction to convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia which the plants can use to make nitrogen compounds such as amino acids. In return, the plant provides sugar to the bacteroids to provide them with the energy that they need for the nitrogen reaction. Understanding this biological nitrogen fixation has a lot of potential for improving future yields of crop plants or reducing our dependence on artificial fertiliser production.

Fallen pollen on the hairs inside the snapdragon flower

Fallen pollen on the hairs inside the snapdragon flower


Bee’s eye view of the Snapdragon mouth

Antirrhinum majus (or the Snapdragon) is a common garden plant in the UK.

The flower has a special closed mouth which can only be opened by bees landing on the lip of the flower. The bee climbs into the flower to reach the nectar at the bottom and whilst inside pollen rubs on to the bee’s back which it then transfers to the next flower it visits pollinating it.


There are lots of different colours and patterns in Snapdragon flowers. For example the flower on the left has pink only over the veins in the petals. We use these obvious differences to investigate the gene networks involved in controlling colour. We also use populations of different coloured Snapdragons to investigate inheritance. Many of the principles discovered for gene control networks and inheritance can be applicable to other systems too, even human genetics!


The complex shape of the Snapdragon flower makes it a fantastic tool to investigate how shape forms. One way we look at how shape forms during flower growth is through clone patterns. Clones are the pink spots in this picture; they form when a single cell turns on the pink colour gene, then all of this cell’s daughters are pink forming the clone spot. By looking at the sizes and shapes of clones we can tell where more growth happens in the flower and in which orientation. The principles learnt from studying the Snapdragon shape can be applied to other plant species (including Grasses!) and even animals. We can also investigate evolution of shape because close relatives of the Snapdragon, like Foxglove don’t have this complex flower shape. 

By Mike Rugen (Teff), Izzy Webb (nodule) and Annis Richardson (Snapdragon)


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