May 26, 2015 | By Simon

While we’ve seen just how useful various additive manufacturing technologies can be when used iteratively for creating unique and custom products, one of the most useful applications has been when they are used for creating custom one-off models for studying biological systems.  

Previously, we’ve seen how this has been done extensively for studying human ailments prior to a surgical procedure; medical professionals are able to leverage the information found in CT scans or other medical scans by turning them into 3D models that can then be 3D printed and studied.  Now, a group of researchers are using additive manufacturing to create a different kind of biological replica as a tool for studying: bird eggs.  

For years now, researchers have been studying the causes and effects of egg-rejection; or, when a particular species of bird lay their eggs into the nests of other bird species which results in the hosts raising the parasitic offspring at the expense of their own offspring.  Over time, bird species have evolved to create custom “markers” on their eggs that include everything from the color of the entire eggs themselves to shape and various patterns to help identify their own eggs amongst any that may not be their own.

Due to the extremely sensitive nature of eggs - and the birds’ highly-acute perception of them - studying this behavior hasn’t always been easy and has included using everything from painted wood aids to to various plastic and plaster egg types.

“Hosts of brood parasites vary widely in how they respond to parasitic eggs, and this raises lots of cool questions about egg mimicry, the visual system of birds, the ability to count, cognitive rules about similarity, and the biomechanics of picking things up,” said Don Dearbon, an expert on the topic and chair of the Biology Department of Bates College.  

In a recent study published in PeerJ, a group of ten researchers unveiled the results of their experiments which included the use of custom 3D printed eggs in further studying egg-rejection behavior.  Among other benefits of using 3D printing to create the eggs include the ability to quickly and easily change the size and shape of various egg types without the need to make these changes by hand … something that earlier fabrication methods including wood or plaster would have required.  

While there are many bird species that practice egg-rejecting, the researchers chose to focus specifically on the Turdus migratorius species - also known as the common American robins - and their rejection of brown-headed cowbird eggs.  The eggs between the two species are wildly different - while the robins lay bluish-green colored eggs, the cowbirds lay a smaller beige egg with spots.  

Using a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer, the researchers were able to create their 3D printed eggs from the digital 3D models using ABS filament before sanding them down and smoothing them with acetone to help ensure a consistent surface.  Once the eggs were finished with life-like accuracy, the researchers then filled them with gel and water to create a similar thermodynamic properties as the real eggs.  Finally, the eggs were finished with a final coat of paint to match both the blue-green of the robin’s eggs as well as the spotted beige of the cowbird’s eggs.     

“This study uses 3D printing for a more nuanced and repeatable egg-making process, which in turn will allow more refined experiments on host-parasite coevolution,” added Dearbon.

While the method of fabrication was certainly more advanced than previous efforts and has provided the researchers with the ability to create more varied finished products,, they claimed that the conclusions drawn from the experiment were very similar to the conclusions drawn from previous experiments that used more traditional fabrication techniques for creating the egg replicas.  Despite this, one major advantage of using 3D printed eggs is that the researchers can then share the 3D printable file with other researchers who may be studying similar effects on other bird species.  



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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