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Scientists are using Legos to look at insects

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The next great tool in entomology may be the Lego.

A new insect manipulator — a tool for easily viewing insects from different angles — is the subject of a recent paper in ZooKeys, in which Steen Dupont, Benjamin Price, and Vladimir Blagoderov report their results. It happens to be made with Legos.

As anyone who's handled insects knows, it can be difficult. The paper's authors point out that the predominant dry pinned method is ubiquitous, but it also makes it difficult to manipulate insects and is prone to error. Thanks to digitization, specimens are being handled now more than ever, and it's easy to damage specimens that become increasingly fragile over time.

Why they went with Lego

Lego examination

Insects being examined using the Lego device (ZooKeys)

So why did the authors choose Legos to make their new insect manipulator? They note that several open source design plans are available, as well as commercial options for easier insect display. Still, Legos proved to be an appealing option. In addition to the sentimental appeal of playing with Legos, the authors wanted something that was easy to make, universally available, and cheap (yes, relative to scientific equipment, Legos are actually cheap).

Make your own Lego Insect Manipulator

To make your own, you can consult their plans and get startedFrom there, you can buy your bricks at Lego's Pick A Brick and Bricks and Pieces selection tool. You'll need a small foam or cork plug to hold the insect pin in place. Notably, there's also a tool you can play around with at home: the Lego Digital Designer. Dupont told the Guardian that he's also working on a new model that will make it easy to connect a mobile phone and take up close pictures of specimens.

To prepare, you can even watch the Lego Insect Manipulator be assembled.

It's not the first time scientists have used Legos

Legos appeal to scientists for a lot of reasons: they're fun to play with, they're easy to get, and they're accurately produced within 5 microns. All those traits, and a sense of whimsy, make them an appealing DIY scientific tool.

Scientists have simulated a worm's brain in a Lego robot and rebuilt lab equipment with Legos, and kids have used Lego sets to build Braille printers.