Researchers Combine 3D Printing, Microcomputers, and Simple Electronics to Make Small, Inexpensive Laboratory System


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We’ve heard of open source 3D printer filament, open source softwareopen source designs, and of course, open source 3D printers. But what about open labware? Researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK and the University of Tübingen in Germany used 3D printing, microcomputers, and components that can be purchased at just about any electronics store to create an open source, low-cost imaging and microscope system for teaching, training, and research. This do-it-yourself laboratory has been dubbed the FlyPi…picture something in between a full-scale laboratory and a lab on a chip.

We talk a lot about innovative 3D printing research projects that take place in labs all over the world, but have you ever stopped to think about how expensive laboratory equipment actually is? According to CBC News, new lab equipment can cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the fact that these neuroscientists developed their FlyPi set-up for less than $150 is a pretty big deal for a lot of people.

“One obvious use is schools, I think,” said Tom Baden, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at the University of Sussex. “They don’t usually have microscopes but it’s very instructive for biology or whatever you want to use it for.”

The FlyPi System

The FlyPi system, which combines 3D printing and micro-controllers or micro-computers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi products, is able to perform multiple functions that you’d see in any standard lab, like optogenetics (a biological technique of using light to control cells) and behavioral studies on animals like fruit flies, roundworms and zebrafish larvae, all of which are important species for neuroscience modeling. Baden and the rest of the researchers – Andre Maia Chagas, Aristides B. Arrenberg, and Lucia L. Prieto-Godino, with the University of Lausanne – published a study on the FlyPi in the Plos Biology journal, titled “The €100 lab: A 3D-printable open-source platform for fluorescence microscopy, optogenetics, and accurate temperature control during behaviour of zebrafish, Drosophila, and Caenorhabditis elegans.

According to the abstract, “Small, genetically tractable species such as larval zebrafish, Drosophila, or Caenorhabditis elegans have become key model organisms in modern neuroscience. In addition to their low maintenance costs and easy sharing of strains across labs, one key appeal is the possibility to monitor single or groups of animals in a behavioural arena while controlling the activity of select neurons using optogenetic or thermogenetic tools. However, the purchase of a commercial solution for these types of experiments, including an appropriate camera system as well as a controlled behavioural arena, can be costly. Here, we present a low-cost and modular open-source alternative called ‘FlyPi’. Our design is based on a 3D-printed mainframe, a Raspberry Pi computer, and high-definition camera system as well as Arduino-based optical and thermal control circuits. Depending on the configuration, FlyPi can be assembled for well under €100 and features optional modules for light-emitting diode (LED)-based fluorescence microscopy and optogenetic stimulation as well as a Peltier-based temperature stimulator for thermogenetics. The complete version with all modules costs approximately €200 or substantially less if the user is prepared to ‘shop around’. All functions of FlyPi can be controlled through a custom-written graphical user interface. To demonstrate FlyPi’s capabilities, we present its use in a series of state-of-the-art neurogenetics experiments. In addition, we demonstrate FlyPi’s utility as a medical diagnostic tool as well as a teaching aid at Neurogenetics courses held at several African universities. Taken together, the low cost and modular nature as well as fully open design of FlyPi make it a highly versatile tool in a range of applications, including the classroom, diagnostic centres, and research labs.”

Typically, building laboratory equipment in an academic setting meant a time-consuming trip to a university’s electronics or mechanical workshop, but not with the FlyPi. Baden explained that 3D printing technology is what really helped get the system off the ground, because it has “made building stuff easier.”

“The notion that scientists build things is not new. It’s kind of a necessity of the job,” said Baden. “There are some who like to doing that and some who avoid it when they can.”

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again… Anyone, from scientists to manufacturers and hobbyists, can test out a design on a 3D printer, determine that a certain change would make the design even better, and 3D print it again once the change has been executed.

Baden said, “I think what’s really happening here is that things are getting faster and cheaper to do.”

This is partially why the researchers are interested in spreading the concept of open labware, so that others can share and change it.

“It’s a community driven effort. We stick it online, people say, ‘you did this badly.’ It makes things faster and better,” Baden explained. “The more people do it the better designs we get.”

Different variations on the FlyPi

The idea for the FlyPi was born when Baden and lead study author Chagas were working in Tanzania, where laboratory equipment was not readily available.

“Across many universities on the continent [Africa], you’ll find that equipment is a problem. There are microscopes around but there are more people than microscopes,” said Baden.

So the two started to frequent electronics departments and stores, searching for anything that would work, and discovered that items like web cams and LED lights could be used instead of components that were hard to find, and expensive to purchase even if they were available. Together with Prieto-Godino, the researchers have since taught classes on programming, 3D printing, and DIY lab equipment at universities all over Africa, so that others can benefit from their work, and maybe even make it better. That is, after all, pretty much the point of open source. Discuss in the Open Source Labware forum at

[Source: CBC News / Images: Tom Baden]


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