Call it the Pinterest of microfluidics.
Metafluidics, a new open-source website designed by MIT, is a free repository of designs for lab-on-a-chip devices. Users can browse the site for devices submitted by inventors of every stripe — ranging from simple cell sorters and fluid mixers, to more complex chips that analyze ocular fluid and synthesize gene sequences. The site also serves as a social platform for the microfluidics community: in addition to submitting designs, users can like, comment, and download design files in order to reproduce a featured device or improve upon it.
The site is designed to accelerate innovation in microfluidic design, breaking away from the conventional, academically peer-reviewed route. “There’s a familiar experience for people in microfluidics: You see a really amazing paper that shows you a design, but if you want to try to copy the design, the actual design files that are a critical part of reproducing or remixing a device are not shared in any systematic way,” says David S. Kong, director of the MIT Media Lab’s new Community Biotechnology Initiative. “As a result, researchers around the world are in parallel reinventing the wheel. It’s one of the reasons why open-source in general is a very powerful set of principles. It can really accelerate the diffusion of technology.”
The open-source platform, modeled after popular open-source repositories such as GitHub and Thingiverse, is outlined in a paper published recently in the journal Nature Biotechnology. Kong came up with the idea for Metafluidics while working as a synthetic biologist at Lincoln Laboratory, combining DNA fragments to reprogram new functions into living cells. He regularly made use of DNA repositories such as the National Institutes of Health’s GenBank, a public database through which scientists can share and access genetic sequences.
Each device uploaded to the Metafluidics site includes a brief description, along with a list of materials used to fabricate the chip and associated design files, such as CAD drawings. “Paper microfluidics, 3-D printed and soft lithography chips, all these techniques require that digital design file,” Kong elaborates. “That’s the key thing we’re making available for the first time to the larger community.”
Kong’s team worked with open-source software consulting company Bocoup to design the platform, which is managed by an editorial team. “Over time we also want to initiate challenges: Who can make the fastest particle sorter? Who can make devices that can culture a certain type of gut microbe?” Kong says. “My opinion is that innovation as a whole benefits when you have diverse communities involved and there’s a tremendous amount of openness.”
Kong envisions the site will help to “democratize” microfluidics and illuminate new ideas from unexpected sources. “There’s the potential for some obscure student from some other part of the world to develop a following, if the microfluidics community finds their part is interesting or cool,” he adds.