Build a bioprinter from very old inkjet cartridges


This column of messages was printed with Escherichia coli. That’s the bacteria better known as E. coli which can cause so many problems if it makes its way into our food. But the relative size and the fact that this strain was engineered to glow in the dark makes it a perfect candidate for Bio Printing. We find it even more interesting that it was printed using hacked inkjet and computer parts.

There are legitimate uses for this type of technology. But this project is aimed more at getting the word out about the method and how easy it can be. For us, it’s the close look at modern inkjet print heads that was the most interesting. It turns out that common cartridges have an overly high-resolution for this to work well. In order to get so many dots in such a small area the nozzle openings end up being too small for most biological material to fit through. There is also an issue with a filter built into the silicone technology inside.

The solution was to use the InkShield to drive cartridges from very old printers. This lets the team command the cartridge with an Arduino, making it dead simple to tweak the way the material is deposited. They mounted the cartridge holder (using decades-old technology in the form of HP Deskjet 500 cartridges) on the sled of an optical drive and went from there.

Take a glance at the printer in action in the clip after the break.


  1. biozz says:

    finally i can pirate organs!

    • Blue Footed Booby says:

      I’ve seen articles about printing cat hearts. Blows my mind that I live in an era where this is possible.

      • Karl says:

        Actually they are developing new technology that uses 3D printers to print human organs. They can already print bladders and heart valves. In the following video, they even show a 3D printed kidney. Soon this tehnology will revolutionize medicine as not only does it eliminate the problem that there are more people waiting for new organs than there are organs available as it allows the doctors to print new ones as needed, but it also takes the risk of rejection down to almost zero, as the new organ will be made from your own cells that have your DNA in them so the organism recognizes the organ as it was the original.

    • Hirudinea says:

      Forget it, Monsanto has copyrighted them all and they have very nasty lawyers.

  2. Ren says:

    E. coliiiiiiiiii!

  3. Brian says:

    E. Coli? I’m sure there is a poo joke in there somewhere…

  4. David says:

    Silicone technology??!?

  5. fartface says:

    Poo printing! Oh Joy!

  6. bunedoggle says:

    Could you print something else? Like penicillin or something?

  7. Kris Lee says:

    What can possibly go wrong?

    • Kris Lee says:

      I mean this actually was not a joke.

      I like to know what are the possible risks of hangling such experiments.

      • No worse than the risk of handling those types of cells to begin with. Until you actually start implanting 3D printed objects into humans, of course.

        What is the risk of a novel potentially life-saving technology? Have a look at the survival rate during the early years in the development of heart transplant procedures, if you want to see an interesting ethical conundrum…

  8. this is THE bridging tech for implementing customized skin grafts for burn/ trauma patients (after taking bone marrow out, spinning down the stem cells- which are roughly of the same scale as E. coli) to selective spray a mesh overlay fabric that is impregnated with antibiotic media…the survivability of a 3rd degree burn will (likely) dramatically increase with this tech…be very happy for the future!!!

    • thedoktorj says:

      That’s assuming any of us can afford it and insurance companies won’t reject it because of cost.

      • Early adopters would likely be grant-funded academic institutions…they usually are. But the real benefit here would actually be the cost savings. At $2k/day ICU or burn unit stay, the cost of extraction, printing, and sigmoid-growth maturation would roughly cost about 1.5 day’s expense and 2 days prep time, compare that with the skin graph gun that requires a week’s equivalent for procedure, prep, and extrusion. Granted, these are just back of the envelope calcs, but $8k in savings for the same outcome (assuming no complications).

        • matt says:

          What hospital do you go to which charges only $2k a day for a ICU stay? Last year I had to go to the ER 3 times to get injected with saline and anti-nausea drugs, I stayed less than 4 hours each time and got hit with a $3k+ bill for each visit.

          • that’s the lowest negotiated rate that an insurance company has at my hospital…granted, its a county hospital…but it sounds like you paid outta pocket which is just a starting request for how much they want you to pay. Even after you are discharged, you can negotiate that bill down several hundred dollars, if not more. The trick is to find out what the negotiated rate is for the insurance accepted at that hospital. That is the hospital’s absolute floor for which they will accept…and you’ll probably never get that low.
            My wife is an er doc, and for what you’re describing, the insurance co. pays about $600 for each visit at her hospital.
            Just remember…hospitals are just crappy hotels with doctors in lieu of masseuses and chefs.

    • Already being worked on! Check out this video:

      Spray-On Skin Gun Heals Burns In Days

      This is literally just a fancy spray gun – no 3D (or even 2D) printing required. Not really something you’d want to experiment with in a DIY setting though.

  9. aztraph says:

    I can finally get that extra digit on my right hand I’ve always wanted

  10. pirtnac says:

    First thought:

    Dear scientists: Please do not let Epson know that they can put communicable diseases in their print cartridges and have them filtered out at the nozzle. I don’t want to die refilling ink.

    Love, Pirtnac

  11. For an interesting BioArt hack, automatically screen Twitter for paranoid fear mongering tweets about biology, and print in glowing green E. coli on a Petri dish…

  12. Just to be clear, E. Coli is a generic name for a MASSIVE number of strains of bacteria (since bacteria reproduce primarily without sex, each strain can be thought of as one genera of identical individuals). E. Coli 0157:H7 is the particular strain that causes internal bleeding when it infects humans —

    But there are probably thousands of other strains which are not pathogenic. And, since it is relatively easy to culture on cheap nutrient media in a lab, E. Coli cultures are often used as “test beds” for genetics experiments. Just like the Arduino platform, or Atmel ICs have good documentation, so lots of experiments use them, E. Coli has well described methods for working with, altering, and causing gene expression, so it’s often used.

    It’s a common mistake in the media to confuse all E. Coli with 0157h7 — there’s actually a great wikipedia entry on the diversity of different versions of the bacteria:

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