Microfluidic LEGO Bricks

Years ago, prototyping microfluidic systems was a long, time-intensive task. With inspiration from DIY PCB fabrication techniques, that time is now greatly reduced. However, even with the improvements, it still takes a full day to go from an idea to a tangible implementation. However, progress creeps in this petty pace from day to day, and in accordance, a group of researchers have found a way to use 3D printed molds to create microfluidic LEGO bricks that make microfluidic prototyping child’s play.

For the uninitiated, microfluidics is the study and manipulation of very small volumes of water, usually a millionth of a liter and smaller (nL-pL). Interestingly, the behavior of fluids at small scales differs greatly from its larger scale brethren in many key ways. This difference is due to the larger role surface tension, energy dissipation, and fluidic resistance play when distances and volumes are minimized.

By using 3D printed molds to create microfluidic bricks that fit together like LEGOs, the researchers hope to facilitate medical research. Even though much research relies on precise manipulation of minuscule amounts of liquid, most researchers pipette by hand (or occasionally by robot), introducing a high level of human error. Additionally, rather than needing multiple expensive micropipettes, a DIY biohacker only needs PDMS (a silicon-based chemical already used microfluidics) and 3D printed molds to get started in prototyping biological circuits. However, if you prefer a more, ahem, fluid solution, we’ve got you covered.

[via Adafruit]

Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

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Living High-Altitude Balloon

High-altitude balloons are used to perform experiments in “near space” at 60,000-120,000 ft. (18000-36000m). However, conditions at such altitude are not particularly friendly and balloons have to compete with ultraviolet radiation, bad weather and the troubles of long distance communication. The trick is to send up a live entity to make repairs as needed. A group of students from Stanford University and Brown University repurposed nature in their solution. Enter Bioballoon: a living high-altitude research balloon.

Instead of using inorganic materials, the Stanford-Brown International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team designed microbes that grow the components required to build various tools and structures with the hope of making sustained space research feasible. Being made of living material, Bioballoon can be grown and re-grown with the same bacteria, lowering the cost of manufacturing and improving repeatability.

Bioballoon is engineered to be modular, with different strains of bacteria satisfying different requirements. One strain of bacteria has been modified to produce hydrogen in order to inflate the balloon while the balloon itself is made of a natural Kevlar-latex mix created by other cells. Additionally, the team is using Melanin, the molecule responsible for skin color and our personal UV protection to introduce native UV resistance into the balloon’s structure. And, while the team won’t be deploying a glider, they’ve designed biological thermometers and small molecule sensors that can be grown on the balloon’s surface. They don’t have any logging functionality yet, but these cellular hacks could amalgamate as a novel scientific instrument: cheap, light and durable.

Living things too organic for your taste? Don’t worry, we’ve got some balloons that won’t grow on you.

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Microfluidics “Frogger” is a Game Changer for DIY Biology

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See those blue and green dots in the GIF? Those aren’t pixels on an LCD display. Those are actual drops of liquid moving across a special PCB. The fact that the droplets are being manipulated to play a microfluidics game of “Frogger” only makes OpenDrop v 2.0 even cooler.

Lab biology is mainly an exercise in liquid handling – transferring a little of solution X into some of solution Y with a pipette. Manual pipetting is tedious, error prone, and very low throughput, but automated liquid handling workstations run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This makes [Urs Gaudenz]’s “OpenDrop” microfluidics project a potential game changer for the nascent biohacking movement by offering cheap and easy desktop liquid handling.

Details are scarce on the OpenDrop website as to exactly how this works, but diving into the literature cited reveals that the pads on the PCB are driven to high voltages to attract the droplets. The PCB itself is covered with a hydrophobic film – Saran wrap that has been treated with either peanut oil or Rain-X. Moving the droplets is a simple matter of controlling which pads are charged. Splitting drops is possible, as is combining them – witness the “frog” getting run over by the blue car.

There is a lot of cool work being done in microfluidics, and we’re looking forward to see what comes out of this open effort. We’ve covered other open source efforts in microfluidics before, but this one seems so approachable that it’s sure to capture someone’s imagination.

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Open Microfluidics Instrumentation Playset

Micro-what? Microfluidics! It’s the field of dealing with tiny, tiny bits of fluids, and there are some very interesting applications in engineering, biology, and chemistry. [Martin Fischlechner], [Jonathan West], and [Klaus-Peter Zauner] are academic scientists who were working on microfluidics and made their own apparatus, initially because money was tight. Now they’ve stuck to the DIY approach because they can get custom machinery that simply doesn’t exist.

In addition to their collaboration, and to spread the ideas to other labs, they formed DropletKitchen to help advance the state of the art. And you, budding DIY biohacker, can reap the rewards.

In particular, the group is focused on droplet microfluidics. Keeping a biological or chemical reaction confined to its own tiny droplet is like running it inside its own test-tube, but because of the high rate at which the droplets can be pumped out, literally millions of these test-tubes are available. Want to grow hundreds of thousands of single cells, each in their own environment? Done.

The DropletKitchen kit includes an accurate pump system, along with high-speed camera and flash setups to verify that everything’s working as it should. Everything is open-source, and a lot of it is 3D-printable and written in OpenSCAD so that it’s even easy to modify to fit your exact needs. You just need to bring the science.

This is a professional-grade open source project, and we’re excited to see it when academics take a turn toward the open. Bringing cutting edge processing technologies within reach of the biohacker community is a huge multiplier. We can’t wait to see what comes out of this.

Lego-Like Chemistry and Biology Erector Set

A team of researchers and students at the University of California, Riverside has created a Lego-like system of blocks that enables users to custom build chemical and biological research instruments. The system of 3D-printed blocks can create a variety of scientific tools.

The blocks, which are called Multifluidic Evolutionary Components (MECs) appeared in the journal PLOS ONE. Each block in the system performs a basic lab instrument task (pumping fluids, making measurements or interfacing with a user, for example). Since the blocks are designed to work together, users can build apparatus — like bioreactors for making alternative fuels or acid-base titration tools for high school chemistry classes — rapidly and efficiently. The blocks are especially well suited for resource-limited settings, where a library of blocks can create a variety of different research and diagnostic tools.

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3D Printing Bone

What do you print with your 3D printer? Key chains? More printer parts (our favorite)? Enclosures for PC boards? At Johns Hopkins, they want to print bones. Not Halloween skeletons, either. Actual bones for use in bodies.

According to Johns Hopkins, over 200,000 people a year need head or face bone replacements due to birth defects, trauma, or surgery. Traditionally, surgeons cut part of your leg bone that doesn’t bear much weight out and shape it to meet the patient’s need. However, this has a few problems. The cut in the leg isn’t pleasant. In addition, it is difficult to create subtle curved shapes for a face out of a relatively straight leg bone.

This is an obvious application for 3D printing if you could find a suitable material to produce faux bones. The FDA allows polycaprolactate (PCL) plastic for other clinical uses and it is attractive because it has a relatively low melting point. That’s important because mixing in biological additives is difficult to do at high temperatures.

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