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.
How BioCurious Started Bioprinting
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.
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.”
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.