By Alison Cranage, Science Writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
Genetic research comes in many shapes and sizes. Scientists might be dealing with minute amounts of liquid, invisible to the naked eye, in which DNA is suspended. They might be programming robotic systems that pipette drugs onto thousands of different cancer cells and monitor their effects. Or, they might look after snails.
Scientific research, by its nature, often involves doing things that have never been done before. And it isn’t always clear how those things might be done.
Tucked away in one of the many corners of the Sanger Institute’s vast laboratory buildings is an engineering department and veteran engineer, Colin Barker. He designs and creates bespoke equipment for scientists across the Institute, to solve all sorts of problems – from warped plastic plates to tanks that need to mimic the moonlight of the equator. He also modifies and customises commercial equipment to make research smoother, faster, easier or cheaper. We spoke to Colin about his work.
For the team of scientists studying schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease, Colin has created bespoke ‘snail hotels’. They are home to freshwater snails, in which the parasitic worm that causes the disease spends part of its lifecycle. The cabinets have finely controlled temperature, light and humidity systems, re-creating equatorial conditions. The hotels have enabled the team to keep and study the worm responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in tropical regions of the world.
“It’s been a fairly long process, these structures aren’t small,” says Colin. “I’ve had to 3D print parts, which took up to a day, a day and a half at a time. Each iteration of the cabinets has improved – in the beginning, a whole room was heated to 30 degrees, but it was too hot to work in for long periods. Then once I’d come up with the cabinets and a racking system, we brought in air from the outside, but that was too cold. The units have to be stainless steel, because the snails get stuck on anything plastic or painted. A commercial unit went rusty pretty quickly.”
“I go and speak to people in the labs. You can hear the problems as people are working, and see what’s happening. Then you can see how to make things different. It might be something really basic like just changing the side a door opens.”
For other teams, Colin has created small, seemingly simple things, worth just a few pounds, that end up saving thousands over time.
A 3D printed plate for high throughput genome sequencing
With one of the highest throughput DNA sequencing laboratories in the world, the DNA pipelines team at Sanger purchases a lot of consumables. A vital piece of kit is the 96-welled plastic plate that samples sit in as they move through the preparation stages before being loaded onto the sequencing machines.
Like all products, the plates come in a variety of standards from a range of manufacturers. The team uses one of the cheaper options, saving huge amounts of money over time. But the plates sometimes warp during their laboratory journey, as they are subjected to varying temperatures and processes. By the end, some couldn’t be loaded to the sequencing machines.
Changing the plates would cost thousands and involve changing the laboratory protocols – as any new piece of equipment requires benchmarking to see if results are affected, even if it’s just a plastic plate. Instead, Colin made a plate holder. It secures the plates flat in place, meaning they can still be used. It costs about £5 to print on the 3D printer.
“I’d call it a 50p job,” says Colin. “It only takes a few minutes to design and make something like that.”
Colin also designs and creates whole systems for laboratories. In 2012 he designed and built ‘The Colinator’ to pick selected groups of related stem cells, known as colonies. It replaced a dull and monotonous task that was also labour intensive and highly repetitive – an ideal process to be given to a robot.
“I worked closely with the Stem Cell Mutagenesis team to design ‘The Colinator’ – a robot that accurately picks 96 cell colonies in under 14 minutes, to an accuracy of less than the width of a human hair. It uses an image detection system to highlight colonies on screen for the researcher to choose. Once the best colonies have been chosen, the Colinator gently slices, slides and lifts each colony away from the plate using a syringe needle with accuracy and reliability of close to 100 per cent. The picked colony is then dispensed into a well, and the needle is washed clean before returning to pick another one. Not only does the robot enable researchers to continue with other tasks, but the gentle picking process keeps the colonies intact and increases the cells’ ability to grow and thrive.”
Machines fill the engineering rooms – from a huge 30 year old lathe, to watch-making tools for fine metal work, to a laser cutter. 3D printers are some of the latest additions.
The ‘plastic’ the printers use is made from tapioca starch, corn, and sugars, so the products created will eventually decompose. Along with the laser cutter, the printers are a big hit with visitors.
“I get a lot of requests for equipment,” explains Colin, “So we got in some portable 3D printers I can loan out to people to make what they need. Creating CAD [computer-aided design] drawings is easy, and it doesn’t take long to design and print a clip, or a plate, or something else that will make life in the lab easier,” says Colin. “There might be a few chess sets printed, you never know,” he adds.
One of the latest prints is an entire robotic arm. Colin can see how something made in-house could eventually replace its commercial equivalents. “It’s cheaper, greener, and quicker to make one than it is to buy one.”
“If the institute can’t source it, I’ll make it. If they can buy it and it’s not right – I’ll modify it. The warranties are gone, but it does save a lot of time. Those first things often end up as ‘alpha prototypes’. Then, once we know what it can do and how it works, I go and do a complete design. A second version will include all the things that you only notice once you start using it. All the things you think… wouldn’t it be great if this machine did this too.”
Colin Barker, working on the 3D printed robotic arm