When Dr. Anna Greenwood set out to find the genes that drive fish schooling, she ran into a problem: The equipment she needed to conduct her experiment didn’t exist.
For her work on teasing out an individual fish’s role in this social behavior, she’d have to study one fish at a time in a controlled environment. But, of course, schooling is not a solitary activity.
The solution to her problem included a trip to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, a salvaged motor from some broken lab equipment, an old bicycle wheel and a lot of brainstorming. The end result: a homemade fish schooling robot, the next best thing to a group of live animals.
Greenwood, a behavioral biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and other basic scientists frequently find that they are pursuing research so cutting edge that the tools they need haven’t even been invented yet. So they do it themselves, often creating their own lab equipment out of a collection of unlikely and disparate parts, just as the TV character Angus MacGyver was famous for doing.
“You think you’re a biologist, but you have to actually be an engineer in some instances,” Greenwood said.
The price of being at the forefront of science can mean being a part-time inventor, something that many researchers have never trained for. The solution may come only through trial and error and a trip to the local hardware store, drugstore cosmetics counter or even their own kitchens.
While many labs are full of highly sophisticated and sensitive equipment, one of Dr. Mark Roth’s early seminal projects hinged on a child’s cereal bowl.
The Fred Hutch cell biologist was the first to put mice into suspended animation in 2005, using the normally toxic hydrogen sulfide gas in small amounts to induce reversible metabolic hibernation. His goal is to ultimately bring this technique to humans, buying precious time during traumas like heart attacks and strokes.
For his first experiments testing the gas on mice, he needed a glass container that sealed and to which he could attach ports to pump air in and out. Looking around his house, where Roth said he often works on problems that plague him in the lab, he seized on the perfect starting point: a glass bowl that he and his wife used to feed cereal to their baby son, now a teenager. Roth attached the gas ports to the bowl himself using tools he had at home. The rest is history.
In Greenwood’s case, she and her colleagues in Dr. Katie Peichel’s lab at Fred Hutch not only had to build their own robot — something none of them had ever before attempted — but they had to do it on a shoestring budget since their fish schooling project hadn’t yet been funded.
They started by making grey plastic models molded from real stickleback fish, complete with painted eyes. Then they needed to figure out a way to make the faux fish move. They first thought about a pulley system to drag them back and forth, but ultimately decided that moving the fish in a circle would be easiest.
Greenwood and her colleagues took apart a broken rotor to salvage its simple motor that spun in a circle and had the idea to attach it to a bicycle wheel, donated by an avid cyclist on the team. Rigging a belt to make the motor spin the wheel took some work, Greenwood said. They tried plastic bra straps and rubber necklaces, neither of which worked, before landing on silicone tubing.
With all the trial and error along the way, it wasn’t a given that they’d come out with a working robot at the end, Greenwood said.
“There were definitely points where we weren’t sure not only if we would get the equipment to work, but whether it would elicit the behavior we wanted,” she said.
When they got it up and running, the robot spun eight plastic fish around in a circle through a tank housing a single live stickleback. Greenwood then filmed the fishy behavior through the bicycle wheel (most of its spokes removed to better observe the animals), comparing a type of marine stickleback that naturally schools with a freshwater stickleback that doesn’t.
And it did work. The team was able to use the tool to pinpoint genetic differences between these two closely related fish species that affect schooling. Nobody had known whether genes or the environment was responsible for their different behavior.
Greenwood, who’s built several pieces of equipment in her research career, has mixed feelings about this aspect of her job.
“It is a fun challenge, but sometimes it is frustrating and you wish you could just buy it off the Internet,” she said.
Cell biologist Dr. Jonathan Cooper and his team are working to pinpoint how cells rearrange their inner scaffolding when they travel through the body — cell migration is a key part of both normal development and tumor metastasis.
Recently, they have been studying whether a certain protein involved in cell movement acted at the leading edge of the traveling cell, and they had heard about a cutting edge technique that uses flashes of light to tether proteins to other proteins or fixed locations.
Cooper wanted to use the light-triggered system to sequester the protein away from the cell’s edge and to see whether migration was affected.
But before they could try it, they had to build the equipment.
“We couldn’t buy it, but the design had been published and it seemed easy enough,” said Cooper, who leads not only his laboratory team, but Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division as well. He said he had a lot of fun piecing together the lighting system with blue LED lights, a $25 circuit board that he’d bought online, wires and soldering equipment from RadioShack, art supplies from Dick Blick Art Materials, and a mounting board (aka a Tupperware lid).
The circuit board, known as an Arduino, runs simple software programs, like the one Cooper wrote to flash short bursts of blue light at dishes of cells. These affordable, easy-to-use proto-computers are revolutionizing this type of DIY construction, Cooper said.
Dr. Ithai Rabinowitch, a neurobiologist in Dr. Jihong Bai’s laboratory, wants to know how the nerves that sense touch convey information in Caenorhabditis elegans, the microscopic roundworm he studies.
He is exploring how the loss of touch affects other neural circuits and behavior — similar to how hearing is enhanced in many blind people.
Rabinowitch specially engineered his worms so that their touch-sensing neurons can be turned on with a blast of LED light. But first he needed to build a veritable worm light box, which he did using a small cardboard box that used to hold lab supplies, an Arduino circuit board, tape and LED lights.
He’s now using the contraption to find out what happens when worms that have grown up unable to feel suddenly regain a sense of touch.
Rabinowitch and Cooper commiserated about the fiddly nature of soldering the very small LED lights as part of constructing their DIY lab equipment.
“I was very nervous about soldering them, because you don’t want to mess them up, right?” Cooper said.
Rabinowitch agreed: “It’s very easy to mess them up, because [they're] so tiny. But you have to do this yourself.”
Dr. Katie Peichel never wears lipstick, which was one reason she was overwhelmed with the many choices at the makeup counter. The other reason was that the lipstick wasn’t for her, it was for her fish.
At the time, she was working on an experiment to test whether female sticklebacks prefer to mate with male fish with red or black throats. Fish with both colorations exist in nature, but the two fish types have other differences, so Peichel and her colleagues wanted to paint the black fish red to see which difference mattered most for mating.
At the drugstore, she finally selected the color that best matched the sticklebacks’ natural red-orange hue. But unfortunately, when she got back to the lab, she couldn’t get the lipstick to stick to the fish’s throats, even when she tried melting it and painting it on.
Even though that experiment didn’t work, it was all part of the hit or miss nature of scientific research. And that “failure” led Peichel and her colleagues to later brainstorm — and build — a special fish tank with transparent compartments for two males and one female that allowed them to test other aspects of fish mating preferences.
Some scientists’ work is so novel that crafting equipment to keep pace with the research is a nearly full-time job.
In 2010, Fred Hutch’s Dr. Wenying Shou hired physicist Dr. David Skelding to create custom tools for her team’s research on how different microbial species cooperate — or compete — when they live in close contact. Shou’s work necessitates growing fungi or bacteria in special conditions, but much of the equipment she needed for those conditions didn’t exist.
Skelding, who’d been working as a software programmer in private industry, saw Shou’s job opportunity posted on Craigslist and jumped at the chance to get more involved in scientific research – and to spend his days building (and programming and testing) lab tools. Recently, he’s been making small chambers with permeable walls that allow the microbes Shou’s team studies to exchange nutrients and other chemicals.
“We’re doing things that are atypical and other people are doing things that are atypical around here,” Skelding said. “You always find you’re limited because you come up with some idea that’s different than what other people have been interested in and then you can’t buy what you need off the shelf.”
Skelding set up a metalworking shop in the back corner of Shou’s lab, complete with a lathe and his own milling machine, where he builds those special chambers and other lab equipment out of metal and plastics. He also does electronics for lab equipment and helped Bai and Cooper design and build several tools in their laboratories. And he’s having a great time.
“Now I’m doing science, but I get to play with this stuff too,” he said.
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.