The UC2 development team (from left to right) Benedict Diederich, René Lachmann and Barbora...

A high-res, low-cost, modular microscope

Young Jena research team develops optical modules for research and training
The UC2 development team (from left to right) Benedict Diederich, René Lachmann and Barbora...
Image: Leibniz-IPHT
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Published: 29 November 2020, 14:05 | By: Lavinia Meier-Ewert, translation by Clara Henkel. | Source article

Modern microscopes that make biological processes visible cost a lot of money, are utilized in specialized laboratories and require highly qualified personnel. Researching new, creative approaches to pressing scientific questions is mainly reserved for scientists at well-equipped research institutions in rich countries. A young research team from the Jena Leibniz Institute for Photonic Technologies (Leibniz-IPHT), the Friedrich Schiller University and the Jena University Hospital is facing the callenge to change this: With the helpf of ACP's Lichtwerkstatt, the researchers have developed an optical kit that can be used to build microscopes for a few hundred euros, that deliver images as high-resolution as commercial microscopes - at a price of a hundredth or a thousandth of those commerical ones. The modular system UC2 ( can be combined with open source construction plans, components from the 3D printer or a smartphone camera, as required by the research question - from the long-term observation of living organisms in the incubator through to use in optics training. The research team is now presenting its development in Nature Communications.

Everything starts with a cube

The basic building block of the UC2 system is a 3D printable cube with an edge length of 5 centimeters, in which components such as lenses, LEDs or cameras can be installed. Several such cubes are placed on a magnetic grid base plate. Cleverly arranged, the modules are turned into a powerful optical instrument. An optical concept in which focal planes of consecutive lenses coincide is the basis of most complex optical structures, including modern microscopes. With the UC2 construction kit, the research team of doctoral students in the microscopy group headed by ACP principal scientist Rainer Heintzmann can experience this inherently modular process in practice. UC2 also gives users without technical training an optical tool that they can use, modify and expand - depending on what they are researching.

Building according to the Lego principle: quickly from the idea to the prototype

Building according to the Lego principle - this not only awakens the inner playfulness of the user, observes the UC2 team, but also opens up new possibilities for researchers to tailor a tool precisely for their research question. "With our method, the right device can be put together quickly to map certain cells," explains Benedict Diederich, doctoral student at Leibniz-IPHT. "If, for example, a red wavelength is required as excitation, you simply install the appropriate laser and swap the filter. If you need an inverted microscope, you stack the cubes accordingly." With the UC2 system, elements can be combined depending on the required resolution, stability, duration or microscopy method and tested directly using the "rapid prototyping" method.

The vision: open science

The researchers archive construction plans and software on the freely accessible online repository GitHub ( so that anyone around the world can access them, recreate, modify and expand the structures. “With the feedback from users, we improve the system bit by bit and add new creative solutions to it,” reports René Lachmann. The first users have already started to expand the system for themselves and their purposes. "We are excited to see when we can present the first user solutions."

The aim behind this is to enable open science. Thanks to the detailed documentation, researchers anywhere in the world, even beyond well-equipped laboratories, can reproduce and develop experiments. Benedict Diederich calls this vision "Change in Paradigm: Science for a Dime": ushering in a paradigm shift in which the scientific process is freely accessible to everyone as openly and transparently as possible and researchers share their knowledge with one another and incorporate it into their work.

UC2 experiment box brings science to schools

In order to inspire young people beyond the scientific community for optics, the research team has developed a kit especially for training at schools and universities. "UC2: The Box" contains a sophisticated kit with which users can get to know and try out optical concepts and microscopy methods. "The components can be combined to form a projector or a telescope; you can build a spectrometer or a smartphone microscope," explains Barbora Maršíková, who developed the experiments and tested them with the UC2 team in several workshops in Jena across the USA, Great Britain and Norway. In Jena, the young researchers have already used their construction kits at several schools and, for example, supported schoolchildren in building a fluorescence microscope to detect microplastics. "We combined UC2 with our smartphone. In this way, we were able to build our own microscope inexpensively without much prior optical knowledge and work out a comparatively simple method to detect plastic particles in cosmetics," reports Emilia Walther from the Montessori School in Jena.

"We want to make modern techniques accessible to a wide audience," says Benedict Diederich," and build an open and creative microscopy community." Especially in the homeschooling times of the corona pandemic, schoolchildren can easily access their teaching materials at home to build.


Benedict Diederich, René Lachmann et al.: A Versatile and Customizable Low-Cost 3D-Printed Open Standard for Microscopic Imaging. Nature Communications 11 (2020),
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19447-9.


Rainer Heintzmann, Univ.-Prof. Dr.
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