Good microscopes are expensive. As such, they can be off-limits to some research projects. Worse, a high price need not necessarily correlate with high quality. There are two main standards that are not always compatible when it comes to interfacing optical components with the requisite staging, e.g., for studies of live cells. Benedict Diederich, Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology, Jena, and University of Jena, Germany, and colleagues have developed an alternative way to acquire a suitable microscope interface for one’s research. The answer? 3D print your own!
Low-Cost, Open-Source, Modular System
As an example, the team developed an incubator-enclosed bright-field microscope for observing cell differentiation constructed from 3D-printed components. They explain that the instrument is versatile and customizable. The design is built around an open standard that anyone can use, given a suitable 3D printer and the necessary skills to follow the instructions. The basic building block is a simple 3D-printable cube with a size of 50x50x50 mm, which can support lenses, LEDs, a camera, or other components. The team refers to their low-cost, 3D-printed, open-source, modular microscopy toolbox as UC2—”You See Too”.
According to the researchers, their open standard allows easy interfacing of the components of a modern microscopy setup, which can be reconfigured for different imaging tasks rather than requiring the acquisition of entirely separate platforms and interfaces. The approach could be widely beneficial in research but also reduce costs in education by providing easier access to different setups. Indeed, such a modular microscopy system would give students hands-on experience that could lead to a greater understanding of optics and microscopy principles and enable anyone to “perceive optics as a playground” where many ideas can be explored easily.
Transforming Microscopy Setups
The team first used their approach to build four identical systems, which were used in a parallel 168-hour long imaging session of monocyte-to-macrophages cell differentiation in vitro. Then, they reconfigured the system into a light sheet fluorescence microscope for volumetric observations of a transgenic zebrafish expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP). The modified system uses the original bright-field microscope assembly and only a few additional components.
The team has demonstrated the suitability of UC2 for biomedical research by obtaining images of, e.g., fluorescing transgenic human pulmonary microvascular endothelial cells, Drosophila melanogaster, zebrafish, and Escherichia coli bacteria. The UC2-based microscope was used in bright-field, wide-field fluorescence, and image scanning microscopy, intensity diffraction tomography, and structured illumination. Under normal circumstances, each of the experiments would require an entirely unique microscope system rather than being accessible with a reconfiguration of a single system.
All of the components needed for the UC2 toolbox were designed on well-known and widely available CAD software—Autodesk Inventor and OpenSCAD. They were printed with off-the-shelf fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers.
“We want to make modern microscopy techniques accessible to a broad public,” explains Diederich, “and build up an open and creative microscopy community.”
- A versatile and customizable low-cost 3D-printed open standard for microscopic imaging,
Benedict Diederich, René Lachmann, Swen Carlstedt, Barbora Marsikova, Haoran Wang, Xavier Uwurukundo, Alexander S. Mosig, Rainer Heintzmann,
Nat. Commun. 2020.