Manu Prakash followed his curiosity out of the lab and into the mud at a nearby nature preserve, where he used a cheap toy he invented to discover a new type of intracellular communication, a kind of Morse Code that allows cells to talk to one another.

An associate professor of bioengineering and a member of Stanford Global Health’s core faculty, Prakash went to the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto armed with his Foldscope, a $1.25 origami microscope he created five years ago. Through the lens, he watched a single-cell organism called Spirostomum expand and contract to send signals to neighboring cells.

“I still remember for the very first time, seeing this organism swim by under the Foldscope,” Prakash told Stanford Science writer Taylor Kubota. “This is a massive cell but it contracts in less than the blink of an eye, accelerating faster than almost any other single cell. When you aren’t expecting it, it’s like it disappears. I remember being so excited, I had to bring the cells back to the lab and take a careful look.”