Engineers use LEGOs for cheaper plant research

"Forget for a minute that they're used as toys," says Ludovico Cademartiri. "They're actually pieces of high-quality plastic, built to extraordinary standards of precision, that you can use to build stuff." (Credit: JonoTakesPhotos/Flickr)

Understanding environmental effects on plant growth, specifically how variations in climate and soil characteristics affect root growth, requires highly controlled environments that expose whole plants to a range of environmental effects.

Ludovico Cademartiri, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University, was looking for something modular, scalable, and structurally precise. He wanted something simple, reproducible, affordable, and capable of many simultaneous experiments. He was looking for something transparent, autoclavable, three-dimensional, chemically inert, and compatible with existing plant growth experiments.

And he came up with the perfect solution in the toy aisle—LEGO bricks.

(Credit: Lind KR, et al. (2014) PLoS ONE 9(6): e100867)
Within the LEGO structure, red dye reveals the presence of a nutrient in the gel. (Credit: Lind KR, et al. (2014) PLoS ONE 9(6): e100867)

“Forget for a minute that they’re used as toys,” Cademartiri says. “They’re actually pieces of high-quality plastic, built to extraordinary standards of precision, that you can use to build stuff.”

They’re also “a good example of how something simple can solve a complex design problem,” he says.

Doctoral student Kara Lind says she worked to figure out how to configure transparent LEGO bricks to hold gel or other soil substitutes for germinating and growing plants.

She also experimented with ways to make the LEGO environments bigger to accommodate growing plants. And she developed techniques to create controlled chemical gradients in the LEGO environments with the intent of testing plant response to nutrients and toxins.

“When I started this research program, there was a lack of tools for the creation of highly controlled and yet frugal environments capable of holding an entire plant,” Cademartiri says.

“The first objective we focused on was building a library of tools that would be accessible to everybody and allow them—and us—to proceed to scientific experiments.”

The researchers accomplished their objective: “We here demonstrate that LEGO bricks are highly convenient and versatile building blocks for building centimeter-scale engineered environments for plant roots,” they write in the paper.

Will other researchers rush to the toy aisle, too? “We do believe it could be useful,” Cademartiri says.

Cademartiri and Lind report the innovation in PLOS ONE with coauthors from Iowa State University, the US Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, and Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, England.

Source: Iowa State University