Oct 20, 2017 | By Benedict

A 3D printed robotic device developed at the UK's Imperial College London allows scientists to monitor many insects at once. The Raspberry Pi-powered device allows neuroscientists to closely examine fruit flies, which are surprisingly similar to humans in many ways.

Our day-to-day experiences with fruit flies are often quite negative. Leave your bananas in the bowl a few days too long and your kitchen can become overrun with the pesky flies, leading you to chuck your fruit away and get rid of the flying pests in the process.

Is this something you should be doing though? According to neuroscientists at Imperial College in the UK, fruit flies are surprisingly useful—if you can get a hold of them.

That’s because the genetic and behavioral properties of fruit flies have similarities with—would you believe it—humans.

So before you swat away your next horde of fruit fly invaders, remember that these pesky flies are just like you: they exhibit signs of anxiety, stress, and disease, all of which makes them valuable test specimens for scientific study.

The problem is getting the right equipment for analyzing these flies. This equipment can be expensive, and is generally only capable of processing a few creatures at a time.

Imperial College researchers are changing that, by developing a 3D printed piece of equipment for quickly studying large numbers of flies.

The 3D printed “ethoscope” combines a small Raspberry Pi computer with a camera, which allows users in the field of neuroscience (and other disciplines) to record and classify fly behavior simultaneously.

This makes studying fly behavior a great deal easier. Other ways to examine the creatures include watching lengthy video footage—a process that can take a very long time. With the ethoscope, however, the machine records all the behavior automatically, leaving users with a stockpile of useful information at the end.

Impressively, the 3D printed machine can even manipulate the behavior of a fly—to wake it up after a given period of sleep, for example. The machine’s ability to know whether a fly is sleeping and for how long it has been sleeping is also useful for carrying out controlled experiments on subjects like sleep deprivation.

But Imperial’s 3D printed ethoscope can be used for a whole range of studies beyond sleep deprivation.

“We can programme the machine to send stimuli to the flies only when they behave in a certain way,” explains PhD student Quentin Geissmann of Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. “For example, the robots can be programmed to give flies rewards only if they complete a learned task.”

That’s right: these fruit flies are so smart, they can be trained like dogs to perform certain tasks. Bet you feel guilty about cleaning up your fruit bowl now.

“It may appear surprising, but fruit flies are smart animals and they can do pretty much everything humans do,” Geissmann says. “Flies know how to look for food, shelter, and mating partners; they learn to avoid predators and aggressive mates; they communicate, court, and engage in social lives.”

While the Imperial College researchers’ ethoscope is 3D printed (on an Ultimaker 2), the scientists say the device could equally well be made from folded paper/card or even LEGO bricks, just as long as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino board are hooked up correctly.

Having worked on the ethoscope for around seven years, the researchers say they are pleased that Imperial has allowed them to carry out their work in such a productive way.

“The interdisciplinary environment found at Imperial was really instrumental for this type of work,” explains Dr Giorgio Gilestro, head of the lab. “There are not many places in the world where biologists and engineers can influence each other's work in such a powerful and productive manner.”

The research paper, “Ethoscopes: An open platform for high-throughput ethomics,” has been published in PLOS Biology. Its other authors beside Geissmann and Gilestro were Luis Garcia Rodriguez, Esteban J. Beckwith, Alice S. French, and Arian R. Jamasb.

Feel like taking a close look at some fruit flies yourself? Materials for the fully open source ethoscope, including 3D printable files, can be downloaded here.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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