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Can I get a copy of that molecule? Biology goes 3-D with new technology

May 4, 2005

In an era of quantum dots and genome maps, science education faces an interesting challenge: How can students come to grips with the complexity of the infinitesimally small?

The answer: Fire up the copy machine.

UW–Madison’s Biology New Media Center has added a new tool to its gleaming fleet of technology dedicated to making biological concepts come to life. The Z-Corp Three-Dimensional Printer, purchased for $57,000 this spring with support from an instructional technology grant, can create customized and remarkably lifelike 3-D replicas of virtually anything under the sun.

Ted Pan, a technology specialist in the center, exhibited a table full of early experiments with the printer, including double helices, complex proteins, bacteria flagella, animal skulls and – for kicks – a toy sports car. One particularly menacing looking mass of horn-shaped proteins was a replication of the anthrax bacterium. Another model was of a new protein discovered by a UW–Madison scientist, who is bringing handy “copies” of the structure with him to conferences.

The 3D scanner looks very much like a printer, except with a curved glass top that covers the ink-jets and a deep tray of white polymer powder. The jets move back and forth over the tray, creating the object one layer at a time based on a three-dimensional computer image. Most of the larger objects are made hollow to reduce material costs.

The objects come out of the printer fairly brittle, but are then fortified with glues that make them remarkably strong. The printer can make things up to 10 inches tall and literally create moving parts, such as a spool encased with ball bearings.

Pan says that educators are excited about the academic uses of the new device. Even with the level of 3-D sophistication in computing, sometimes there is no substitute for picking something up and looking it over.

“The technology has been around for some time and has been widely used by architects and engineers,” Pan says. “What’s newer are the applications as a teaching tool. This is especially useful when teaching about complicated structures like molecules or viruses, where having something in hand makes it easier to conceptualize.”

Pan’s goal is to make the new technology available for broader campus use beginning this fall. He is describing the possibilities of the new tool at the annual Teaching and Learning Symposium in May, which showcases classroom innovation.

Located in the Biotechnology Center, the Biology New Media Center is devoted to enhancing the visual potential of discovery, with video editing suites, large-scale printing, online materials and 3-D computer monitors. It can also translate the real into the virtual with a scanning device that makes three-dimensional computer programs out of real objects. The center is widely used not only for instruction, but also for scientific presentations where visual enhancements are crucial.