DIY technologies are democratizing science

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this you’ve heard of 3D printing, you might also know what DIY means (Do It Yourself), and what Open Source stands for. But chances are you’re not aware that scientists around the world are collaborating on designing, building, sharing, and of course using a wide variety of quite advanced lab equipment like fluorescence microscopes, incubators, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines for amplifying DNA, and even reagents[1].

According to Joshua Pearce, a materials engineer at Michigan Technological University, “hardware built from open-source designs generally costs just 1–10% of the price of commercial counterparts.” Take a minute to have a look at his Open-source Lab on Appropedia, the variety of Open Source tools these scientists are building is impressive! A syringe pump, automated 3-D microscope, centrifuges, spectrometers, even a smartphone microscope and a smartphone spectrometer.

This kind of DIY equipment provides massive savings that can make the difference between a research project happening or not, while often being the only way to procure some technologies in lower-income countries. Like Gustavo Batista Menezes, when he returned to Brazil after using a specialized confocal microscope at the University of Calgary, Canada, equipment that cost nearly one million dollars.

But Menezes found a cheaper way: he pooled funds with colleagues and bought a cheap, bare-bones confocal microscope, a $1 plexiglass stage and a $2 infrared lamp from a local hardware store. “Twelve minutes after the microscope was installed in my lab,” he says, it produced its first in vivo images. It would go on to generate images that were good enough to twice make the cover of the journal Hepatology.

Or Fernan Federici, a molecular biologist at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago:

Instead of buying an off-the-shelf fluorescent microscope for $25,000 or more, Federici 3D-printed his own for just $250. It can’t do everything that a brand-name instrument can, but it does enough.

And it’s not only mechanical and electronic tools, Jenny Molloy, a biotechnologist at the University of Cambridge, founded the Open Bioeconomy Lab that develops open-source tools for biotechnology, substances and compounds used in chemical reactions.

Since 2017, she has compiled 84 open-source enzymes and 45 reporter genes, including polymerases, ligases, reverse transcriptases, restriction enzymes and fluorescent proteins, in the Open Enzyme Collection. “We estimate that you can save at least 80–90% of the cost of an enzyme by producing your own,”

[1] A reagent /riˈeɪdʒənt/ is a substance or compound added to a system to cause a chemical reaction, or added to test if a reaction occurs. (Reagent – Wikipedia)