An insect specimen in the lego apparatus

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Solving scientific problems with Lego

Natural History Museum scientists have created a tool made from Lego to hold and manipulate delicate specimens such as tiny insects.

The pinned insect manipulator (IMp) allows scientists to easily move the specimen into different positions and rotate it over two axes so that they can study the detail from many angles.

Previously, if for example scientists wanted to make comparisons between two specimens, they had to pin them to specially made or adapted devices and then constantly re-align the specimens to look at the different structures. This was time-consuming, fiddly and used expensive equipment.

‘This was not a viable solution for me,’ said Museum entomologist Dr Steen Dupont, part of the team with Dr Benjamin Price and Dr Vladimir Blagoderov who created the IMp. ‘I needed a good manipulator that was also cheap, because I needed one for each specimen I was comparing.’

So how did the Lego idea come about? ‘I solve problems with Lego… That’s just what I do.’ Dr Dupont said. ‘People are usually quite sceptical at first, but quickly realise the potential when they see it in use, then they want one!’

This research was published this week in the journal ZooKeys and the team have made building instructions available online.

The IMp (pinned insect manipulator) made from Lego

The IMp (pinned insect manipulator)  made from Lego


Helping digitise Museum specimens

Over the next five years the Museum aims to digitise 20 million specimens. This involves taking multiple digital photos of each, and transcribing label information, which can then be made accessible online.

Dr Dupont explains, ‘This process includes a lot of imaging, for example of pinned insects, and to get a meaningful image often we have to use different views'.

‘The IMps will become the standard manipulator in the Sackler Biodiversity Imaging Lab at the Museum,’ said Dr Blagoderov.

Keeping it cheap

The team are currently working on designing portable lighting for the IMp as lighting is essential for accurate specimen imaging.

‘One of the reasons the IMps do not include lighting and a light diffusing shell is that we wanted the IMps to be as inexpensive as possible,’ said Dr Price. ‘By making it completely out of Lego it is possible to have it ordered and shipped to almost anywhere, and the low cost makes it affordable to everyone. It is especially important for scientists in developing countries and students.’