3D Printing, Math, Biology and Worm Locomotion
Eva Strawbridge, Assistant Professor – Department of Mathematics and Statistics, James Madison University (JMU) and Jeff Kopsick, Junior in Mathematics and Biology are on an unlikely 3D printing journey.
We’ll get to the worm locomotion part, shortly…
Their story began when Jeff took an independent study course in 3D printing. He’d never seen a 3D printer in action and knew that his Dad’s company used one to design bottle cap prototypes. That was it.
Once familiar with the capabilities of a 3D printer, Jeff was inspired, and wondered if a 3D printer could be used to create micro-environments through which round worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) could navigate and be studied. Talk about connecting dots that are pretty far apart.
He contacted Eva, who directs the WORM (Wiggling Organism Research and Modeling) Lab at JMU. She remarked, “I was so pleased to have Jeff approach me with his novel idea. I had never heard of anything like it. Sure, my colleagues had been studying roundworm locomotion for years, and to my knowledge, no one had thought of this before. My research interests include ﬂuid dynamics, biomechanics, mathematical biology, and applied mathematics, so this was a great fit.”
Why study round worms? Round worms are really small (less than 1mm in length) and were the first organism to have their genes fully sequenced. This is important because there is a link between genetics and movement, which is what Jeff wanted to study.
The first task was to create a very small and precise environment for the research. “Since we needed a microscope for this study, it made sense to print a maze on a microscope slide. I had another 3D printer but it couldn’t print at the level of detail that I needed. Our Afinia had just been updated with new software and I was able to print mazes with 1mm wide and 2mm tall obstacles.”
Eva said, “Jeff had a hypothesis that round worms change the way they move based upon their environment so he set out to create different mazes. He developed a protocol where he printed one on a microscope slide, introduced a round worm in a saline solution and made a “sandwich” by placing another slide on top. All of the obstacles have to be exactly the same height so that the slides are parallel.”
Eva and Jeff had another item to consider: There wasn’t a microscope with the capability to record the worm’s movement. In true Maker-fashion, they made one.
Jeff said, “Nothing existed with the ability to do what we needed, so we built a microscope with a motorized cage and video capability that would capture the worm’s progress. I learned how to write code to control the equipment so that we could document what happened.”
“During the experiments, we could tell by observation that the worm reacted differently based upon where we placed the obstacles. The next step was to quantify the motion so that we could prove that it was different.”
“Although round worms are fairly simple creatures, how they move through their environment is very complex. We used the video to overlay the worm’s centerline, center of mass and velocity. This data helped us to extrapolate via formulae how the worms would move in certain circumstances.”
Click here to see the Eva’s WORM Lab page. The black dots in the videos are the 3D printed obstacles that also keep the microscope slides apart.
All in all, this has been a fruitful partnership for Eva and Jeff, who is now the senior researcher at the WORM lab. “Jeff is really excited about his work and sometimes we have to tell him to go home. I can’t wait to see where he will do his post-graduate work and what he will accomplish.”