Arduino’s acceptance into the biotech research community is evident from its increasing mentions in high-profile science and engineering journals. Mentions of Arduino in these journals alone have gone from zero to more than 150 in just in the last two years.
While it may be best known as staple for hobbyists, Makers, and hackers who build on their own time, Arduino and Atmel have a strong and rapidly growing following among professional engineers and researchers.
For biotech researchers like myself, experimental setups often require highly specific instruments with strict design rules for parameters such as timing, temperature, motion, force/pressure, and light. Such specific instruments would be time-consuming and expensive to have custom built, as the desired experimental conditions often change as we investigate different samples, cell types, etc. Here, Atmel chips and Arduino boards find a nice niche for making your own affordable, custom setups that are repeatable, precise, and automated. Arduino and Atmel provide microcontrollers in a myriad of form factors, I/O options, and connectivity that are available from a number of vendors. Meanwhile, freeware Arduino code and hardware drivers are also available with many sensors and actuators to go with your board. Best of all, Arduino is designed for a wide audience and range of experiences, making it easy to use for a variety of projects and complexities. So as experimental conditions or goals change, your hardware can easily be re-purposed and re-programmed according to specifications.
Arduino’s acceptance into the biotech research community is evident from its increasing mentions in high profile journals in science and engineering including Nature Methods, Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, Lab on a Chip, Cell, Analytical Chemistry, and the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Mentions of Arduino in these journals alone have gone from zero to more than 150 in just in the last two years.
In recent years, Arduino-powered methods have started to appear in a variety of cutting edge biotechnology applications. One prominent example is optogenetics, a field in which engineered sequences of genes can be turned on and off using light. Using Arduino-based electronic control over lights and motors, researchers have constructed tools to measure how the presence or absence of these gene sequences can produce different behaviors in human neurons  or in bacterial cells . Light and motor control has also allowed for rapid sorting of cells and gene sequences marked with fluorescent dyes, which can be detected by measuring light emitted to photodiodes. While the biology driving this research is richly complex and unexplored, the engineering behind the tools required to observe and measure these phenomena are now simple to use and well-characterized.Neuroscientists Voights, Sanders, and Newman at the Open Ephys project provide walkthroughs and add-ons for using Arduino to help them create tools for probing cells. From left to right, Arduino-based hardware for creating custom electrodes, providing multi-channel input to neurons, and for control over optogenetic lighting circuits. ,
Arduino-based automation can be used for supplanting a number of traditional laboratory techniques including control of temperature, humidity, and/or pressure during cell culture conditions; monitoring cell culturing through automated sampling and optical density measurements over time; neurons sending and receiving electrochemical signals; light control and filtration in fluorescence measurements; or measurement of solution salinity. This kind of consistent, automated handling of cells is a key part of producing reliable results for research in cell engineering and synthetic biology.
Synthetic biologists Sauls et al. provide open-source schematics for creating an Arduino-powered turbidostat to automate the culturing of cells with recombinant genes. Arduino has also found an excellent fit in the microfluidics community. Microfluidics is the miniaturization of fluid-handling technologies—comparable to the miniaturization of electronic components. The development of microfluidic technologies has enabled a myriad of technical innovations including DNA screening microchips, inkjet printers, and the screening and testing of biological samples into compact and affordable formats (often called “lab on a chip” diagnostics) . Their use often requires precise regulation of valves, motors, pressure regulation, timing, and optics, all of which can be achieved using Arduino. Additionally, the compact footprint of the controller allows it to be easily integrated into prototypes for use in medical laboratories or at the point of care. Recent work by the Collins and Yin research groups at MIT has produced prototypes for rapid, point-of-care Ebola detection using paper microfluidics and an Arduino-powered detection system .
Microfluidic devices made from paper (left) or using polymers (right) have been used with Arduino to create powerful, compact medical diagnostics (Left: Ebola diagnostic from Pardee et. Al , Right: Platelet function diagnostic from Li et al. )Finally, another persistent issue in running biological experiments is continued monitoring and control over conditions, such as long-term time-lapse experiments or cell culture. But what happens when things go wrong? Often this can require researchers to stay near the lab to check in on their experiments. However, researchers now have access to on-board wi-fi control boards  that can send notifications via email or text when their experiments are completed or need special attention. This means fewer interruptions, better instruments, and less time spent worrying about your setup. True to Arduino’s open-source roots, the building, use, and troubleshooting of the Arduino-based tools themselves are also available in active freeware communities online –.
Simply put, Arduino is a tool whose ease of use, myriad applications, and open-source learning tools have provided it with a wide and growing user base in the biotech community.
Melissa Li is a postdoctoral researcher in Bioengineering who has worked on biotechnology projects at UC Berkeley, the Scripps Research Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Washington. She’s used Arduino routinely in customized applications in optical, flow, and motion regulation, including a prototype microfluidic blood screening diagnostic for measuring the protective effects of anti-thrombosis medications , . The opinions expressed in this article are solely her own and do not reflect those of her institutions of research.
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