At the University of California San Francisco’s DeRisi Lab, scientists investigate viruses and parasites whose victims range from tiny insects to large populations of humans. The lab has researched malaria drugs; identified bee viruses; and released software that assembles viral genomes. One current project tracks a newly identified virus that’s been mysteriously killing boa constrictors and pythons for decades. The effort holds importance beyond snakes, since many diseases deadly to humans originate in animals, according to Joseph DeRisi, the lab’s head and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.
Because most of DeRisi Lab’s work happens on a microscopic scale, it might come as a surprise that 3D printing is a valuable research tool. “Scientists are constantly in need of specialized apparatuses,” DeRisi says. “There’s hardly a microscope in our building that does not have some 3D-printed part on it.” The lab makes custom pipet racks, objective cases, gel combs, and countless other small parts. Even when a piece of equipment is available through a supplier, DeRisi often finds it faster and cheaper to build it on the lab’s uPrint 3D Printer.
“Yes, you could go to a catalog and order a highly specialized holder. But it’s ridiculous that that costs $50 and that we can print it for a dollar,” says the researcher. In one example, the lab 3D printed its own centrifuge that runs on a $5 motor from Radio Shack. A supplier would have charged $350 for a similar device, but the lab’s homespun centrifuge with custom rotor cost $25.
“Scientists are accustomed to having to make their own tools. Every lab used to have its own machine shop,” DeRisi says. He worries that in some cases, those abilities are being lost, but says 3D printers could fuel a resurgence in do-it-yourself equipment. In DeRisi’s training program, all grad students are given access to CAD software and expected to print their own parts. About 20 people work in DeRisi’s lab, but he makes the uPrint available to hundreds of students and researchers. It’s often running 24-7. “The ability to customize and specialize objects and tools in our daily work is really a revolution. It makes us able to do our work better, faster and cheaper,” DeRisi says.
Outside the lab, DeRisi has a passion for making students and others understand viruses. In his lectures, he uses detailed 3D-printed virus models. He says the next generation of models might have moving joints and even magnets that mimic molecular forces.
DeRisi hopes 3D printers will one day be as accessible as document printers. To help others get started making their own equipment, DeRisi Lab maintains 3D Printables, a library of .stl files including a magnetic cell purification jig, a tip loader and several gel combs.
DeRisi Lab’s next big project will be creating new technologies to map how humans respond to different kinds of viruses and infectious diseases. You can follow the lab’s work online.
Access DeRisi Lab’s 3D Printables online.
See Joseph DeRisi’s lecture with 3D-printed virus models, “The Virus Hunter’s Toolkit,” on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website.