Scientists use LEGO blocks to study plants
Image: Lind RK/PlosOne

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones. Researchers at Iowa State University in the US needed to build highly controlled environments to study the effects that environmental conditions, such as variations in climate and soil characteristics, have on plant growth.

Greenhouses were not an ideal solution, as they are identical and not easy to manipulate. On the other hand, microfluidic technologies, which allow scientists to analyse fluid flow in sub-millimetre dimensions, can create manipulable environments, but are quite expensive. 

So what did chemist Ludovico Cademartiri and his team do? They built the environments themselves using LEGO blocks!

Cademartiri explains at Übergizmo: “Forget for a minute that they’re used as toys. They’re actually pieces of high-quality plastic, built to extraordinary standards of precision that you can use to build stuff. They happen to be a good example of how something simple can solve a complex design problem”.

The researchers used transparent LEGO blocks to hold gel and different types of soil, build structures that could hold larger plants, and develop techniques to create controlled chemical gradients.

As Cademartiri and his team explained in the their paper, published in the journal PlosOne, LEGO environments can be used to scale the size of organisms, allow for real time monitoring of root systems in 3D, be reconfigured to change the environment, generate controlled solid barriers and air pockets, and are a great unvaried growing medium.

And the researchers are more than happy to spread their know-how, as Cademartiri said over at Bioscience Technology: “When I started this research program, there was a lack of tools for the creation of highly controlled and yet frugal environments capable of holding an entire plant. The first objective we focused on was building a library of tools that would be accessible to everybody and allow them—and us—to proceed to scientific experiments”.

When scientists come up with simple and creative solutions “Everything is awesome”.