LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology

A career as a lab biologist can take many forms, but the general public seems to see it as a lone, lab-coated researcher sitting at a bench, setting up a series of in vitro experiments by hand in small tubes or streaking out a little yeast on an agar plate. That’s not inaccurate at all – all of us lab rats have done time with a manual pipettor while trying to keep track of which tube in the ice bucket gets which solution. It’s tedious stuff.

But because biology experiments generally scale well, and because more data often leads to better conclusions, life science processes can quickly grow beyond what can be handled manually. I’ve seen this time and again in my 25 years in science, from my crude grad school attempts to miniaturize my assays and automate data collection to the multi-million dollar robotic systems I built in my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Biology can get pretty big in a hurry.

Another day at the office. By Maggie Bartlett, National Human Genome Research Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Being able to do hundreds of experiments at the click of a mouse is remarkably powerful, but the expense of the equipment involved has kept this technology squarely in the domain of deep-pocketed institutions. Few kids with an interest in STEM disciplines ever get to see biology practiced as I’ve seen it — massive labs with dozens of robots whizzing back and forth on linear slides, moving labware between liquid handlers and incubators, eventually to be read on instruments that produce torrents of data that are processed by the latest in database technology. All most kids have seen of biology is tedious manual versions of DNA analysis or maybe some sequencing by what amounts to a black box.

That’s a shame, because I feel like the life sciences lose a lot of promising young talent to other fields that have more initial pizzazz. STEM has become somewhat synonymous with robotics, and for good reason — robots are fun, kids love them, and they’re pretty cheap to build and getting cheaper and more capable by the day. It’s been hard to impress on kids that they can do big things in biology and chemistry simply because it’s so expensive to show them.

That’s why I was really jazzed when I saw these low-cost lab automation instruments built with LEGO Mindstorms. For the price of one $400 Mindstorms kit, [Ingmar Riedel-Kruse] and his colleagues at Stanford have built a couple of different liquid handling instruments with real potential. Not only are these instruments — a pipettor that can work in a one-dimensional space and a 2D gantry robot — great for STEM demonstrations, they’re also more than capable of doing real science.

Parts needed aside from the stock Mindstorms kit are minimal, comprised mostly of labware like cuvettes and microtiter plates. The business end of the pipettor requires a 5-ml syringe to be modified to work with the LEGO parts, but that’s not a complicated affair by any means. The video below shows a certain over-compliance in the mechanism which might result in positional inaccuracy, but given some of the LEGO builds we’ve seen here before, I bet that could be remedied. Overall I’m very impressed; honestly, I’ve seen instruments that cost hundreds of times what [Ridel-Kruse] spent that have half the capability and all of the slop.

We’ve covered a lot of home-brew instruments for the DIY life science lab, from Arduino-fied syringe pumps to 3D-printed centrifuges. Those are great tools, but they’re probably not going to engage a FIRST kid. Watching a liquid handler work, though, and understanding that there are bigger and better versions in modern biology and chemistry labs, might just spur a few kids to pursue careers in the “S” disciplines of STEM.

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