3D Printing of Lab Equipment

Our question: How can the Duke iGEM team best increase access to synthetic biology?

Our approach: To decrease the cost of entry by means of 3D printing

As our project progressed, we became increasingly aware of the unnecessarily high costs of much of the equipment that we used in our lab. From test tube racks to roller drums, our lab is filled with items that are affordable only under a well-funded lab’s budget. Due to this realization, we contemplated the idea of creating customizable, cost effective lab equipment. We discovered that any university student can obtain free access to AutoCAD, a 3D CAD design software, and that there was a freely accessible and practically unused 3D printer in the basement of Duke’s Perkins Library. We began by designing test tube racks to hold tubes of multiple sizes. Our final design used 34g of plastic, (~3.8% of the polylactic acid, PLA, plastic spool) costing approximately $1.62 in plastic. Purchasing test tube racks online can cost $10-$20 (, not including tax or shipping. Although these price differences are not astounding, labs often need many tube racks, and having relatively inexpensive, highly customizable, and easily replicable tube racks can be beneficial.

As our next 3D printing project, we decided to make a 96-well plate vortex adaptor. Attachments such as these can cost as much as $100 (Source) and Microplate Genie microplate mixers can cost as much as $500-$600 (Source). Our adaptor, however, used only 35g of plastic and cost only $1.67 in plastic to print. Because the Buchler Lab did not have such an adaptor, our design proved to be quite useful and cost effective. From this design particularly, we realized the vast range of possibilities that 3D printed lab parts could offer to underfunded laboratories.

Because of this realization, we decided explore designing and printing more advanced lab equipment that underfunded schools or labs might not be able to afford. The roller drum, because of its high frequency of use in our lab and in any lab that needs to culture cells, was our obvious first choice. We designed and printed the materials needed to make the framework for the roller drum and purchased additional parts to transform the framework into a functional roller drum all for a mere $122.41, less than 6% of the cost of a roller drum.

One important note about the designs is that, when autoclaved, they do not maintain their structural integrity. These results were found by testing small 3D printed designs in the Buchler Lab’s autoclave. Due to the lab uses of our designs, autoclaving these designs is not necessary. However, some lab equipment (micropipette tips, for example) needs to be autoclaved. This poses a limitation on the amount of equipment that can be 3D printed for lab use. Perhaps plastics other than PLA with a higher melting temperature could be safely autoclaved. However, we intentionally produced parts out of PLA with the vision of making equipment solely out of plastic that can be produced from molecules of biological origin. In the (very) long term, we envision a self-replicating lab, wherein lab hardware can be produced to grow PLA-producing microbes, which in turn can be used to produce plastic for more lab hardware.

While the products we designed are clearly more cost effective for underfunded labs than those available for purchase, self-designed equipment can have many other benefits as well. 3D printed lab equipment is highly customizable. Because labs often have different uses for the same lab equipment, being able to design specialized parts can be highly advantageous to labs. It can provide cheap and easy access to parts that are expensive and possibly nonexistent. Labs can avert their monetary resources away from unnecessarily expensive lab equipment and towards new discoveries and experiments. By lowering the cost of entry into synthetic biology research, more research can be conducted and more discoveries can be made. The transition to 3D printed lab equipment could prove highly beneficial to not only synthetic biology but to practically any research lab.

Comparison of cost of lab equipment:
Full product purchased online3D Printed
Tube Rack$10-$20$1.62
96-Well Plate Shaker/Accessory$100$1.67
Roller Drum$2162$85.50

More Information on costs:

Roller Drum: $2162

Link to purchase here

MakerBot Natural PLA Filament (Large Spool, ~900g): $43

  • PLA used in design of roller drum: ~295g
  • (295/900)*$43=$14.09

10Kohm potentiometer: $5.95

DC Motor: $12.99

Regulated DC Power Supply: $31.25

Soldering Iron Kit: $14.68

Red Primary Wire, 20 Ga. (100 ft): $6.54

Total: $85.50

Tube Racks $10-$20

Link to purchase here
  • PLA used: 34g
  • (34/900)*$43=$1.62

96-Well plate adaptor: $100 (Shaker costs $600)

Link to purchase Vortex Adapter Link to purchase Well-plate Vortex
  • PLA used: 35g
  • (35/900)*$43=$1.67


The MakerBot 3D Printer used in this project

Tube rack in its design stages

3D-printed test tube rack

Unfortunately, the tube rack failed our autoclave test.

Conceptual view of roller drum base

"Wireframe" view of roller drum base

Roller drum shaft

Printed roller drum

Bottom-view of the culture tube rack

Bottom view of culture tube rack

Top view of culture tube rack

Well-plate vortex adapter

Well-plate vortex adapter

Well-plate vortex adapter fits perfectly

House Course to be Taught at Duke University

Our question: How can the Duke iGEM team best increase knowledge of synthetic biology?

Our approach: To start a half-credit course taught by members of the Duke iGEM team to educate students on the field of synthetic biology, beginning Spring 2015.

From curing genetic diseases to creating wholly artificial life forms, the new field of synthetic biology is rapidly redefining our understanding of life itself.

Synthetic biology combines the vast knowledge of molecular biology developed over the last century with principles of forward design, giving new meaning and purpose to the concept of genetic engineering. The core philosophy of this movement can be summed up by the words of physicist Richard Feynman: “what I cannot create, I do not understand.”

A house course is a half-credit course taught by Duke students and sponsored by Duke faculty. Our house course serves as an introduction to the synthetic biology movement, as well as a catalyst for dialogue about the potential applications of the young field and its implications for society. We will begin with an introduction to the biological and engineering principles required for an informed discussion on the topic, focusing on the Central Dogma, standard biological parts, and modular design. We will then discuss a variety of current and potential applications in the genres of basic research, gene therapies, and drug development, among others. Finally, we will analyze the potential impact of such technologies on human health, safety, intellectual property, and the environment. Students will have the opportunity to develop their own synthetic project ideas, assessing their implications on ethics and society.

The course will provide students with a foundation of understanding upon which they can critically evaluate developments in synthetic biology and society. As synthetic biotechnologies become more commonplace in our world, it is critical that society’s leaders have the necessary background to make crucial decisions regarding their development and use.

While this course currently is offered only to Duke students, we hope in the near future to transform this course into a course that is collaboratively designed and taught by iGEM teams in universities and high schools across the globe. This would allow knowledge of synthetic biology to reach an incredibly wide audience and could be a means by which new synthetic biology research ideas are produced.

Click here to view the proposed syllabus for our house course.

Helping the NCSSM iGEM Team

Our Question: How can the Duke iGEM team educate students on synthetic biology and provide means for discussion?

Our Approach: To teach a seminar at a high school taught by members of the Duke iGEM team to educate students on the field of synthetic biology; to introduce the iGEM competition to high school students; to aid in the creation of a high school team and development of a project

The relatively new field of synthetic biology is rapidly evolving, and iGEM plays a major role in the expansion of its horizons. Exposing young students to synthetic biology is essential to its growth, as the subject is not well known. To increase awareness, we developed a seminar with a curriculum intended to introduce synthetic biology, as well as the iGEM competition. The material taught includes everything from elementary DNA structure to the impact of synthetic biology on society. All material is taught utilizing presentations, discussions, and labs.

The NC School of Science and Math, located in Durham, is a residential public high school for academically gifted students across the state. NCSSM hosts an annual summer research symposium in which students of the school present their work. Our team was allotted a presentation time, as one of the members attends the school. During our presentation, we introduced our project, provided a broad overview of synthetic biology, and discussed the possibility of an iGEM team at NCSSM. The purpose of presenting at the research symposium was to determine the level of interest that students had in iGEM and synthetic biology. Once we established sufficient interest in these areas, we partnered with faculty and students of this school to design a seminar teaching students a basic synthetic biology curriculum. Our aim was for students to develop enough of an understanding of the subject matter to develop a project for the high school division of iGEM.

One of the several benefits of choosing NCSSM was working with students that have previously been exposed to high-level learning. Students at NCSSM are offered courses that cannot be found in other high schools, such as Molecular Genetics. This course awards students with a basic understanding of molecular biology and teaches basic lab techniques, like PCR, restriction digests, and transformations. Several of the students who signed up for our seminar were either enrolled in, or had completed this class. Further into the seminar, this will allow us to perform more complex labs, as students are already familiar with important lab procedures. Although this seminar will continue throughout the semester, students have already begun to grasp the concepts of synthetic biology fairly well. We have discussed basic DNA structure, a rough background in molecular biology, and standard biological parts. We intend on solidifying and building on this instruction to build a full scientific understanding of synthetic biology. After the scientific background has been set, a discussion of the bioethical, social, environmental, and health impacts will continue throughout the remainder of the course. This aspect of synthetic biology is arguably the most important, as it instills an understanding that allows students to grow into critical members of society who can contribute to discussion about the growing field. Educating students in this area is increasingly important, as bioethical implications become part of the picture, because the need for a basic public awareness upsurges. In the same interest, we are looking for channels to contribute to broader public discussion about the potential societal impacts of synthetic biology. The first thing that came to mind was TED. NCSSM has a TEDx committee which hosts a TEDx talk annually in the spring semester. We are conferring with the committee in order to see whether one of the speakers may discuss the ethical implications of synthetic biology. Another option we are considering is acquiring a license from TED to have a Duke iGEM TEDx talk that’s theme will revolve around these bioethical influences.

The next step was to consider the further development of an NCSSM iGEM team. We shared the idea with the students in the seminar, and a handful of them took interest immediately. In years past, NCSSM has had an inactive iGEM team that has registered for competition, but not submitted materials. This problem is due to lack of leadership and the ability and knowledge necessary to develop a project. This year, we intend on changing that. The students of the NCSSM iGEM team who are interested in taking charge of the project are taking the seminar at an increased pace, in order to be able to prepare for next year’s competition in time. They have practiced restriction digests, ligations, transformations, gel electrophoresis, PCR, and other lab techniques in training for when they begin their project. Our collective goal is to have an idea and approach for a project developed by mid-November so that we can recruit more members from the seminar, and begin working. Our (Duke) iGEM team is, and will continue to be, heavily involved in the startup stages of the project. Once a strong foundation has been laid, our team will step back slightly, and assist as needed. We hope to keep this network open so that in years to come the Duke iGEM team may continue collaborating with the NCSSM iGEM team to beta test parts, develop ideas, and implement the broader education of synthetic biology, all through the use of the seminar.

Although this seminar is currently only being taught at NCSSM, we hope to see other universities and colleges follow our lead in becoming more involved with local high schools. Not only does a wider spread understanding of synthetic biology enhance stimulating discussion of the ethical aspect, it also gives a chance for the innovation of further applications of the subject.