Saving 99.5%: automating a manual microscope with a 3D printed adapter

TL;DR: Some 3D-printing hackery can create an automated microscope stage from a manual stage for ~0.5% of the cost from the manufacturer.


I have always wanted access to a microscope with an automated stage. The ability to scan an entire slide/plate for a cell of interest seems to unlock a wealth of new possibilities.

Sadly, these systems cost quite a bit. The lab I work in now has a Leica DMi8 microscope with automated movement in Z. But XY movement is (on our model) still manual. It is possible to purchase an automated XY stage for this microscope, but the list-price quote is around £12,000 (including stage, and control hardware and software).

I’m not going to argue that this price is unreasonable. I am sure that the manufacturers of scientific equipment spend a lot of time and money innovating, and that money has to be made back by selling devices which have relatively small production runs. Nevertheless, the result is that the costs of kit that makes it to market are fairly staggering – and this prevents someone like me from being able to play around with an automated stage.

But I still wanted to experiment with an automated stage! So I wondered how easy this would be to do myself. After all, we have a manual stage, and we move it by rotating two knobs. Couldn’t I just get motors to turn those instead of doing it with my hand?

As I thought this through further I realised it was slightly complicated than this. Firstly, the knobs are co-axial, making them rather harder to deal with than would be two separate shafts. And secondly, as you rotate the X-knob, the shaft moves in X.

So the motors need to be able to move with it. But they also need to be to rotate and exert a twisting force on the knob – so they need to move linearly but be locked in one orientation.

Hardware: 3D printed pieces, 2 stepper motors and a RAMPS controller

I made a quick design in OpenSCAD

Basically the first knob,which controls movement in Y, is simply connected to the mechanism by a (red) sleeve which connects to a motor below. The knob above, which controls movement in X, is placed inside a (blue) sleeve which covers it in a gear. That gear is turned by a (turquoise) gear turned by a second motor. Both motors are mounted on a (transparent) piece which also connects them to a LM6LUU linear bearing which allows them to slide but keeps their orientation constant.

I printed out these 3 pieces – then tweaked the dimensions a little to be more snug on the knobs and printed them again. The final STL files, and the SCAD file that generated them are available on Thingiverse.

To control it I connected the steppers to a trusty RAMPS 3D printer controller. These cost £30 with a screen and a rocker controller (the Leica hardware to control a stage is ~£3k). Since the 3D printer controller is also all set up to control the temperature of a hot-end and a heated bed, if you want to add warm stage down the line this might be ideal.

Initial tests controlling the position using the system using the RAMPS controller went well, and let me calibrate the number of steps per micrometer.

Software: MicroManager

Regrettably, the Leica software isn’t going to allow you to easily hook it up to an Arduino-based controller. But, as ever, open-source software comes to the rescue. Micro-Manager is a very advanced ImageJ plugin that can connect to the Leica camera, and to the microscope itself to control filter cube positions, Z-focusing, etc.

Don’t expect quite the user-friendliness of Leica software from Micro-Manager, but do expect a wealth of packages to perform common operations in automated-microscopy (Leica charges ~£2.5k for the software to revisit a position multiple times – which was included in the quote given above).

Theoretically, MicroManager even allows you to control XY position using a RAMPS controller – someone has already written a package for exactly this board. This step, which should have been trivial, was actually the most complicated. The device adapter is designed to ask the RAMPS controller for its version, and somehow I could never make my board submit a response that the software was happy with. I had to download the MicroManager source and remove the code that checked the version. Successfully setting up the build environment for Windows took an age. Do get in touch if you have a similar project and want the DLL I built [update: DLL here, I offer no guarantees at all that it will work. This is an x64 build which will only work with a recent nightly build]. Anyway, to cut a long story short I got MicroManager to talk to the RAMPS board successfully.

Testing by making a 100X oil immersion slide scanner

Now to put it into practice.

I wrote a Beanshell script to scan a slide in X and Y and capture images. In this case I captured images in a grid 40 microscope images wide by 30 microscope images high, for a total of 1200 images.

This took a few minutes – try doing that by hand.. Then I stitched them together with the MIST plugin. The result is a 27,000 x 12,000 pixel image, featuring a whole lot of red blood cells. You can zoom in on the version below. This was taken with a 100X oil immersion objective, at which magnification the smallest motion of the stage is a substantial fraction of the image, but still allows enough overlap for stitching.

Fun! Still a bit more experimenting to do, but I’m hoping to get this acquiring tagged proteins from 96-well plates.

Caveat for anyone who tries to implement this: obviously be very careful not to create significant non-twisting forces on the coaxial knobs – you don’t want to damage your stage and ruin the alignment.

Petition grapher

The houses of parliament in the UK host a website of petitions. When a particularly popular petition is trending it can be addictive to refresh the page and watch the numbers going up behind your eyes. But of course what one really wants is a graph.

So I built this tool which regularly queries the parliament API and stores historical petition signatures in a database which it uses to draw graphs.

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor

When Randall Monroe released the amazing Up-Goer Five comic, I was inspired to hack together a customised editor so that I could explain my own research in the limited vocabulary of the thousand most common words.

For me the most exciting bit about this was that I got an email from Mr. xkcd himself. It also became a bit of a science-communication craze. A lot of scientists got in on the action (some kind people have made a collection here).

The editor has featured in The Guardian (and again). More recently it’s even been used for conference sessions, which are pretty fantastic. (The 9th talk in that playlist is particularly excellent). It’s also quite popular as a science communication training exercise, although it goes without saying that no-one is suggesting that this is the best way to communicate.

iGEM

The international genetic engineered machine competition (iGEM) was my first taste of proper experimental science, and I still have a fondness for synthetic biology. I was part of the Cambridge Team for 2010. This was an exciting team project where we got to define our own genetic engineering project and work on it over a summer.

We focused on bioluminescence, building modular genetic components (BioBricks) from firefly luciferase, in a number of colours, and also from the bacterium Vibrio fischeri. The exciting thing about the bacterial luciferase is that this permits ‘autoluminescence’, i.e. the bacteria produce light without adding any other chemicals. We exploited this to light ourselves in the photo below.

In the project we achieved a Gold Medal, were finalists in the competition and won the prize for Best Wiki, which I designed. As part of the project I built BioBrick2GenBank, a small tool which converts BioBricks to GenBank format for editing in standard cloning software. This has been used >350,000 times to date.

Our BioBricks have been used by a number of future teams, including by a team from Peking, who used this part in one bacterium, combined with a light sensitive-system in bacteria in a separate tube, to allow cell-cell communication!

Gibson assembly

We were also early users of the revolutionary Gibson Assembly protocol, and I penned the lyrics to the embarassing music-video we made to promote it, earning us the (dubious?) distinction of a Craig Venter tweet.

Media

On the back of this project I was quoted in New Scientist, and later by the BBC.

Book chapter

Ben Reeve and I later wrote a chapter about the application of bioluminescence in synthetic biology.