Cell (biology)

5 Labs That Use 3D Printing for Biohacking Projects

The greatest bridge between the world of makers and the world of biohackers is probably the mighty 3D printer. The main difference is instead of using plastics, they’re using biomaterials to build three-dimensional structures, and using special bioinks made of living cells to print messages and patterns.

Human cells cultured into a decellularized apple slice (left) and an apple carved into an ear shape (right) from Pelling Labs. Photo by Bonnie Findley

How BioCurious Started Bioprinting

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BioCurious is a mandatory stop among biohacker communities in North America. This pioneering space, located in Sunnyvale, California, hosts a number of great people collaborating on the DIY BioPrinter project. Their bioprinting adventure started in 2012, when they had their first meetups. According to Patrik D’haeseleer, who is leading the project with Maria Chavez, they were looking for community projects that could bring new people into the space and let them quickly collaborate. None of the project leaders had a specific bioprinting application in mind, nor did they have previous knowledge on how to build this kind of printer. Still, it appeared to be a fairly approachable technology that people could play with.

“You can just take a commercial inkjet printer. Take the inkjet cartridges and cut off the top essentially. Empty out the ink and put something else in there. Now you can start printing with that,” D’haeseleer explains.

The BioCurious group started by printing on big coffee filters, substituting ink with arabinose, which is a natural plant sugar. Then they put the filter paper on top of a culture of E. coli bacteria genetically modified to produce a green fluorescent protein in the presence of arabinose. The cells started to glow exactly where arabinose was printed.

Modifying commercial printers for this, as they were doing, presented challenges. “You may need to reverse engineer the printer driver or disassemble the paper handling machinery in order to be able to do what you want,” says D’haeseleer.

First major success with BioCurious’ $150 DIY BioPrinter: fluorescent E. coli printed on agar with an inkjet printhead. Photo by Patrik Dʼhaeseleer

So the group decided to build their own bioprinter from scratch. Their second version uses stepper motors from CD drives, an inkjet cartridge as a print head, and an open source Arduino shield to drive it — a DIY bioprinter for just $150 that you can find on Instructables.

The next and still current challenge deals with the consistency of the ink. Commercial cartridges work with ink that is pretty watery. But bioink requires a more gel-like material with high viscosity. The DIY BioPrinter group has been experimenting with different syringe pump designs that could allow them to inject small amounts of viscous liquid through the “bio print head.”

BioCurious’ early printer: $11 syringe pumps mounted on a platform made from DVD drives. Photo by Patrik Dʼhaeseleer

Moving to 3D

Starting with an already existing 3D platform seemed like the best way to go beyond 2D patterns. The group first tried to modify their existing 3D printer by adding a bio print head directly on it. However, their commercial machine required some difficult reverse engineering and software modification to perfect the process. After a couple of months, this led to a dead end.

The RepRap family of 3D printers influenced the next step. After buying an affordable open source printer kit, the bioprinting team was able to switch out the plastic extruding print head for a print head with flexible tubes that connected to a set of stationary syringe pumps. It worked.

Converting a RepRap into BioCurious’ latest 3D BioPrinter platform, with an Open…

Scientists move closer to building synthetic yeast from scratch

Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast
BUDDING STAR With five more synthetic chromosomes built, scientists are closer to creating a synthetic genome for Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast (shown).

Synthetic yeast is on the rise.

Scientists have constructed five more yeast chromosomes from scratch. The new work, reported online March 9 in Science, brings researchers closer to completely lab-built yeast.

“We’re doing it primarily to learn a little more about how cells are wired,” says geneticist Jef Boeke of the New York University Langone Medical Center. But scientists might also be able to tinker with a synthetic yeast cell more efficiently than a natural one, allowing more precise engineering of everything from antiviral drugs to biofuels.

Boeke was…

How to view tiny parts of DNA? Make them ‘blink’

chromosome flash
chromosome flash

A single chromosome, here, has blinked on brightly, after being excited by light. That light being emitted by the genetic tissue makes internal cellular structures visible without the need for fluorescent dyes.

BOSTON, Mass. — A new technique can home in on parts of a cell that are smaller than 10 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in size without damaging the cell. On February 17, Vadim Backman described how he and his group makes cells do this. They take advantage of DNA’s natural ability to “blink” on when hit with the right color of light.

Backman and Hao Zhang work at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Together, the biomedical engineers found a way to make some materials in a cell briefly shine more brightly than if they had been labeled with one of the most powerful fluorescent chemicals. Their trick: They tickle cells with a particular wavelength — or color — of light.

Backman presented the details, here, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This new approach, he argues, can offer views…

Biologists Grow Human Cells Inside Pig Embryos

Let’s all take a deep breath. The lab-created “pig/human hybrid” being reported in the news this week is real, but it’s not quite the monster you might imagine. Researchers from the Salk Institute, who published their results in the journal Cell, have successfully coaxed human cells to grow inside pig embryos.

Chimeras (hybrid organisms) have always been a sticky issue both scientifically and ethically. Public opinion about this kind of science is hardly favorable, and the National Institutes of Health and other research bodies will not fund studies that involve the implantation of human stem cells into the eggs and embryos of other animals.

But many scientists, including the authors of the new paper, feel it’s important to keep doing it anyway. The first phase of the current research, which was funded by supporters of the Salk Institute, involved creating a cross between a rat and a mouse by implanting rat cells into mouse embryos. (Earlier this week, we reported on similar research in which scientists grew mouse organs inside rats, then transplanted them…

The Weird Event That Led to You and Ewe and Yew

Life arose on earth over three billion years ago, and for a long time, there were only one-celled organisms. These prokaryotes diverged and evolved in many ways, but making the leap from one cell to many cells (eukaryotes) was a paradigm shift that led to every living thing on earth that’s big enough for us to see -including us. How did that happen? Before we could sequence genes, the prevailing theory was a gradual development as cells mutated, diverged, and evolved. However, recent genetic research has led credence to the idea that the first two-celled organism was a merger that only happened once.

The alternative—let’s call it the “sudden-origin” camp—is very different. It dispenses with slow, Darwinian progress and says that eukaryotes were born through the abrupt and dramatic union of two prokaryotes. One was a bacterium. The other was part of the other great lineage of prokaryotes: the archaea. (More about them later.) These two microbes look superficially alike, but they are as different in their biochemistry as PCs…