A Cool New Use For Legos: Growing Lab Plants

Legos: a plant researcher's new BFF

Lego plant
Lego walls hold a transparent growth medium mimicking soil. The versatile setup allows researchers to see how plants respond to increasing levels of nutrients, which are here dyed orange.Lind et al / PLOS ONE

Legos are great for making all kinds of things--castles, pirate ships and functioning miniature dockyards, as I can tell you from experience. But a new study found that they are absolutely excellent for something unexpected: studying the growth of plants and the delicate expansion of their roots.

The reasoning of the researchers, from Iowa State University, went like this: Greenhouses are really large. Micro-fluidic devices used to grow plants and test unique growing conditions are really expensive. So, what about Legos? Transparent blocks of the common toy are perfect for creating the micro-environments needed to study plants and their roots, the researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE--they are cheap, abundant, easy to re-arrange, and can be tailor-made with CAD software. The Legos can even be sterilized in an autoclave (basically like a small oven for sanitizing lab equipment) without melting, while remaining translucent.

So far the scientists have used Legos to study and produce images of the real-time growth of the roots of garden cress. The Legos are perfect for holding the see-through growth medium, a type of agar. The Legos have also allowed the researchers to study differences in soil/agar that aren't easy to produce with larger equipment, and they're great for building in air pockets, solid barriers between plots, and chemical and microbial gradients that could for example show how roots respond to increasing concentrations of fertilizer.

Lind et al / PLOS ONE