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Scientists create a LEGO-based device for cheap cutting-edge microscopy

Posted March 16, 2019

You know the name LEGO very well. Those plastic building blocks were probably a big part of your childhood, but did you know they are not just for children? Scientists from UCL have successfully used LEGO building blocks to create a low-cost, automated method for fluorescence microscopy. The best thing is how cheap the materials were.

Scientists used LEGO building blocks to create a low-cost, automated method for fluorescence microscopy. Image credit: Arto Alanenpää via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientific equipment generally is extremely expensive. In fact, so expensive that it is largely inaccessible to most scientists. Microscopes are essential part of many laboratories, allowing scientists to directly observe the tissues and cells that constitute them. Microscopes got better and better over the years, but also more and more expensive.

Not all greatest minds are able to access such complex devices just due to their cost. Part of that is the materials. In order to have an adjustable device, you need a well-engineered machine with very expensive materials. However, now an international team of scientists at UCL got a great idea of using LEGO blocks.

NanoJ-Fluidics. Credit: Dr Giorgia Siriaco, MRC LMCB

NanoJ-Fluidics. Credit: Dr Giorgia Siriaco, MRC LMCB

LEGO bricks are great just because there are many different types of them. They are cheap, readily available and allow building various structures quick and cheap. Scientists used LEGO bricks to create a machine called NanoJ-Fluidics (and affectionately nicknamed Pumpy McPumpface), which enables researchers to observe cells in a highly customisable format. The device is able to manipulate the liquid environment of the cells in a completely automated manner. This allows for a much better resolution, making it possible to observe cells at well-defined moments in time. This is a cheap and simple way to research cells and their division in pretty much any laboratory in the world.

Of course, scientists are not going to manufacture these devices and sell them. Instead, all the data and software are open-source, which enables all scientists in the world to use it. Dr Ricardo Henriques, one of the scientists behind the project, said: “We’re extremely proud of this work. NanoJ-Fluidics (Pumpy McPumpface) shows that with a bit ingenuity, it becomes possible to build high-performance technology with something as simple as LEGO. Thanks to this, everyone can easily reproduce our LEGO system and apply it to their research using microscopy.” All the information and software will be available through the GitHub website.

Scientific equipment is just hugely expensive. This means that a lot of great scientists cannot access it easily. Advancements like this make it a little bit easier and constructing the device can also be quite a lot of fun. Who doesn’t like building things with LEGO bricks?


Source: UCL

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