Ancient toy inspires tool for state-of-the-art science

Ancient toy inspires tool for state-of-the-art science
The 3D-Fuge utilizes 3D-printed disks designed to hold small vials of liquid. Simple yarn is used to spin the disks. Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

A 5,000-year-old toy still enjoyed by kids today has inspired an inexpensive, hand-powered scientific tool that could not only impact how field biologists conduct their research but also allow high-school students and others with limited resources to realize their own state-of-the-art experiments.

The device, a portable centrifuge for preparing scientific samples including DNA, is reported May 21 in the journal PLOS Biology. The co-first author of the paper is Gaurav Byagathvalli, a senior at Lambert High School in Georgia. His colleagues are M. Saad Bhamla, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Soham Sinha, a Georgia Tech undergraduate; Janet Standeven, Byagathvalli's biology teacher at Lambert; and Aaron F. Pomerantz, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I am exceptionally proud of this paper and will remember it 10, 20, 30 years from now because of the uniquely diverse team we put together," said Bhamla, who is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

From a Rainforest to a High School

Together the team demonstrated the device, dubbed the 3-D-Fuge because it is created through 3-D printing, in two separate applications. In a rainforest in Peru the 3-D-Fuge was an integral part of a "lab in a backpack" used to identify four previously-unknown plants and insects by sequencing their DNA. Back in the United States, a slightly different design enabled a new approach to creating living bacterial sensors for the potential detection of disease. That work was conducted at Lambert High School for a synthetic biology competition.

Thanks to social media and a preprint of the PLOS Biology paper on BioRxiv, the 3-D-Fuge has already generated interest from around the world, including emails from high-school teachers in Zambia and Kenya. "It's awesome to see research not just remain isolated to one location but see it spread," said Byagathvalli. "Through this, we've realized how much of an impact simple yet effective tools can have, and hope this technology motivates others to continue along the same path and innovate new solutions to global issues."

Ancient toy inspires tool for state-of-the-art science
A sample vial is placed into the disk of a 3D-Fuge for separation. Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

To better share the work, the team has posted the 3-D-Fuge designs, videos, and photos online available to anyone.

Frugal Science

One focus of Bhamla's lab at Georgia Tech is the development of tools for frugal science, or real research that just about anyone can afford. The tools behind state-of-the-art science often cost thousands of dollars that make them inaccessible to those without serious resources.

Centrifuges are a good example. A small benchtop unit costs between $3,000 and $5,000; larger units cost many times that. Yet the devices are necessary to produce concentrated amounts of, say, genomic materials like DNA. By rapidly spinning samples, they separate materials of interest from biological debris.

The Bhamla team found that the 3-D-Fuge works as well as its more expensive cousins, but costs less than $1.

Ancient toy inspires tool for state-of-the-art science
Gaurav Byagathvalli, a senior at Lambert High School in Forsyth County, Georgia, demonstrates an inexpensive centrifuge created with a 3D printing process. M. Saad Bhamla, a Georgia Tech assistant professor, observes the device, which can be part of a "lab in a backpack." Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

An Ancient Toy

The 3-D-Fuge is based on earlier work by Bhamla and colleagues at Stanford University on a simple centrifuge made of paper. The "paperfuge," in turn, was inspired by a toy composed of string and a button that Bhamla played with as a child. He later discovered that these toys, known as whirligigs, have existed for some 5,000 years.

They consist of a disk—like a button—with two holes, through which is threaded a length of flexible cord whose ends are knotted to create a single loop with the disk in the middle. That simple contraption is then swung with two hands until the button is spinning and whirring at very fast speeds.

The earlier paperfuge uses a disk of paper. To that disk Bhamla glued small plastic tubes filled with a sample. He and colleagues reported that the device did indeed create high-quality samples.

In late 2017 Bhamla was separately approached by the Lambert High team and Pomerantz to see if the paperfuge could be adapted for the larger samples they needed (the paperfuge is limited to small samples of ~1 microliter—or one drop of blood).

Together they came up with the 3-D-Fuge, which includes cavities for tubes that can hold some 100 times more of a sample than the paperfuge. The team developed two equally effective designs: one for field biology (led by Pomerantz) and the other for the high-school's synthetic biology project (led by Byagathvalli).

Bhamla notes that the 3-D-Fuge has some limitations. For example, it can only process a few samples at a time (some applications require thousands of samples). Further, because it's 10 times heavier than the paperfuge, it can't reach the same speeds or produce the same forces of that device. That said, it still weighs only 20 grams, slightly less than a AA battery.

"But it works," said Bhamla. "All you need is an [appropriate] application and some creativity."

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More information: Gaurav Byagathvalli et al. A 3D-printed hand-powered centrifuge for molecular biology, PLOS Biology (2019). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000251
Journal information: PLoS Biology

Citation: Ancient toy inspires tool for state-of-the-art science (2019, May 22) retrieved 17 June 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

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User comments

May 22, 2019
This is another tribute to humanity's imaginative sense of logic. AND the price is right.

May 22, 2019
Ultra-low-cost, hand-powered centrifuge is inspired by whirligig toy

physicsworld 11 Jan 2017
A human-powered centrifuge made of paper can generate centrifugal forces of 30,000 g and separate blood into its component parts in less than two minutes.
The resulting device consists of two 10 cm-diameter discs of stiff waterproof paper, each with two 3 mm-diameter holes, spaced 2.5 mm apart, in the centre. The string is threaded through the holes and each end is tied around a wooden handle. One of the discs has two pieces of drinking straw, each sealed with glue at one end, glued to it to hold small tubes containing the biological fluids.

May 23, 2019
Hand-powered ultralow-cost paper centrifuge

The paperfuge achieves speeds of 125,000 rpm (and equivalent centrifugal forces of 30,000 g), with theoretical limits predicting 1,000,000 rpm We demonstrate that the paperfuge can separate pure plasma from whole blood in less than 1.5 min, and isolate malaria parasites in 15 min

With a revolution of 104720rad/s, a milli radii has a velocity of 105m/s
resulting an acceleration of 10966278m/s²
in the world of protons that's 1.8x10-20 Newton's on a single proton
Courtesy of a paper whirligig

May 23, 2019
well, i see the concept may be useful for school science education.
With adult supervision.
Proceeded by requiring each student to pass safety training course.
Learning how to properly use a full-face mask of shatterproof glass.

How to properly handle, store & dispose of biological materials.
With medically supervised training in carefully cleaning all equipment & surfaces.
Plus First-Aid & emergency procedures for Biological accidents.

It will have to be carefully explained to the student's parents that they must convince their child of the seriousness of this educational opportunity.
There are legal reasons & financial liability for screwing up!
Which is why manufacturers of centrifuge & other instrumentation are so expensive.

Would you go to a Doctor who charges you less because he refuses to pay for malpractice insurance?
Think of how much cheaper your surgeon could bill you!

All that money you saved should buy you a luxurious plush coffin.

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