Using 3D printing to make lab equipment on the cheap

Laboratory equipment typically cost anywhere from the thousands to hundred thousand dollars.  However, a neuroscientist and his collaborators have created imaging and microscope system for fluorescence microscopy and optogenetics which only cost a whopping €100 or about $150 Canadian.

The DIY lab equipment called “FlyPi” microscope designed by Dr. Tom Baden, a neuroscientist at the U.K.’s University of Sussex, and colleagues has been demonstrated to be a useful medical diagnostic tool and teaching aid at a neurogenetics course held in 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,” according to the paper authored by Andre Maia Chagas, Lucia L. Prieto-Godino, Aristides B. Arrenberg, and Baden. Their work was recently published in the journal PLoS Biology.

The technology is based on a 3D-printed mainframe, a bare bones microcomputer called the Raspberry Pi which retails for around $48 in Canada, a high-definition camera, and Arduino-based optical and thermal control circuits.

Actually, the FlyPi can be assembled for well under €100 with 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 a full complement of modules will set you back approximately €200 or “substantially less if the user is prepared to shop around,” according to the authors. All functions of FlyPi can be controlled through a custom-written graphical user interface.

What would you use it for?

Put together from readily available off-the-shelf mechanical, optical, and electronic components, the FlyPi can be used to conduct a variety of standard laboratory functions from optogenetics, the use of light to control cells and studying the behaviour of small animals such as fruit flies and zebrafish larvae.

The inspiration for the FlyPi cane to Baden and Chagas when they were working in Tanzania and found it very hard to find suitable laboratory equipment.

The local universities had microscopes but there always seemed to be more users that there were microscopes for them to use.

The duo ended up doing the rounds of cheap electronics stores in search of equipment. They discovered that low-cost LED lights, Web cams and other items could be cobbled together to build an alternative to the more expensive lab microscopes.

Through the development of FlyPi, Baden, Chagas, and Godino have also branched out to teaching 3D printing, programming and lab equipment building in universities in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, and Tanzania.

While computer programmers have open-source software and exchange code that is freely available to anyone, the FlyPi team is propagating the practice of “open labware,” according to the CBC News.

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

The group admits their creation has some limitations. One obvious limit of FlyPi is spatial resolution. “The system currently resolves individual human red blood cells but narrowly fails to resolve malaria parasites within,” the paper said. “…Similarly, photon catch efficiency of the CCD sensor could be improved by use of an unfiltered (monochrome) chip.

But the FlyPi is a work in progress. Its makers expect further development to take place and researchers and educators integrate their own features into the design.

“Clearly, the current FlyPi only scratches the surface of possible applications,” the team said.



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