Scientists join forces to create a new generation of simple but effective scientific devices – using a popular children’s building material.
Lego-powered biomedical research
State-of-the-art technologies often come at a cost – they’re complex, expensive and inaccessible to many researchers. So, cell biologist Dr Ricardo Henriques and neuroscientist Dr Christophe Leterrier went back to basics, as they explain here:
Many of us played with Lego as children, becoming young inventors of houses, cars and spaceships. It’s an incredibly flexible material and can easily extend beyond building toys. The breadth of mechanical parts available, their low cost and their robustness – combined with their easily customisable motors – make Lego a prime material for building moving mechanical devices.
Lego to the rescue
We recently turned to Lego as a tool for building new devices that we can apply to scientific research. They have two clear benefits: the devices are affordable and extremely easy for researchers to reproduce. Even a 12-year-old kid can build them.
We’ve developed a syringe pump system, named Pumpy McPumpface. Pumpy is an array of motors – made from plastic Lego bricks – that can precisely control the pressure in a syringe to inject chemicals into biological samples. Our simple Lego device has already helped make new discoveries in cell biology.
Speeding up the science
Pumpy fully automates complex and tedious protocols that researchers would normally perform manually, like staining cells to make them easier to see under a microscope. And it comes with an added benefit – these procedures can be carried out directly at the microscope, unlike in normal labs where they need to be done in a separate room.
After we’ve used Pumpy to inject a chemical which preserves cells in a ‘life-like state’, we can then look at living cells down the microscope and monitor specific molecules inside the cells. So far, we’ve used Pumpy to visualise how cells react to drugs, in fully automated and highly reproducible experiments, helping us to better understand the underlying mechanisms that control cell behaviour.
Sharing the creativity
Our work shows that biomedical researchers are not only adopters of technology for their experiments but are also keen developers. Due to our commitment to open science, we’ve been open about the development of this device since its conception.
As a result, many other research groups have already implemented Pumpy in their research, with over 10 different labs describing their own version of the system on social media (search #Pumpy on twitter for images and videos).
A world of possibilities
We’re now looking into additional ways to incorporate accessible materials into our research. For example, we’re combining Lego with 3D-printing and easy-to-use electronics. With these components, we hope to design imaging systems controlled by artificial intelligence, which react to living biological systems and can help us uncover how cells function and communicate.
Our technologies will be cutting-edge and, above all, accessible and extendible by the research community – helping to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”, in true Lego fashion.
Image: ‘Pumpy’ Lego microscopy setup. Image credit: MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology
The Henriques lab at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London focuses on developing open-source, cutting-edge technologies that enable innovative approaches to study biomedical diseases.
The Christophe Leterrier lab is based at Aix-Marseille University.
The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.