Science sans frontières

Article by Neil Clark

The €100 FlyPi in fluorescence mode

PRICE often limits training and research opportunities in developing countries – but researchers have now combined 3D printing, a Raspberry Pi system, and open-source platforms for an affordable alternative.

Institutes struggling for funding, often in developing countries, frequently do not have access to commercially-produced equipment costing up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. However, according to the authors of a recent PLOS Biology paper, “modern biosciences today stand at a precipice of technological possibilities” – where setups capable of delivering wide-ranging, high-quality data can be built at a mere fraction of the commercial cost.

To prove their point, they reported the design of a €100–200 (US$115–230) modular system called “FlyPi”, then presented its use in a series of state-of-the-art neurogenetics experiments, as a medical diagnostic tool, and as a teaching aid at several African universities.

FlyPi’s design takes advantage of developments in consumer-orientated manufacturing techniques, combined with the falling prices of user-friendly, technologically-advanced microelectronics components. It is based on a 3D-printed framework holding a Raspberry Pi computer and camera, cheap LEDs for lighting and simple lenses, as well as optical and thermal control circuits based on Arduino, an open-source microcontroller.

The components can be modified to suit the laboratory’s purpose, and FlyPi was described to undertake standard lab protocols including light and fluorescence microscopy to a resolution of 10 µm, optogenetics, thermogenetics, and behavioural studies on small animals such as roundworms, fruit flies, and zebrafish larvae.

The research group, led by Tom Baden from the University of Sussex, UK, has established a website called "Open Labware", in order to spread what is described in the paper as “a true democratisation of scientific research and education that is largely independent of financial backing”. All source code involved in the project is open, so that the design and future modifications can be shared electronically, to facilitate reproducibility of results across labs and promote prototyping of novel modifications to adapt the design for specialised applications.

Baden said: “Many institutions around the world have little money to spend on costly equipment. We think it is very important that neuroscientific training and research open up to larger numbers of students and junior scientists. So we hope that, with open labware such as our FlyPi, we can offer a starting point."

So far, the developers have used the system to teach courses in 3D printing, programming and DIY lab equipment at universities in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania.

PLOS Biology: http://doi.org/b9r3

Article by Neil Clark

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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