The tiniest tools scientists use

Nanobots, magnetic beads, and bird bands.

To manipulate wee objects, you need spectacularly tiny tools. We asked ­­sci­en­tists to tell us about the cutest little instruments they use in their research. Here are a few of our favorites.

5-millimeter bird band
5-millimeter bird band Britt Spencer

Matt Wilkins, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Science Outreach at Vanderbilt University

The U.S. Geological Survey distributes these half-gram metal bands to help us track birds as they migrate south for the winter. Some of the fliers weigh just a few tens of grams themselves.

1-micrometer DNA injection needle
1-micrometer DNA injection needle Britt Spencer

Timothy Warrington, research scientist at FREDsense Technologies

During my doctorate, I was breeding millimeter-​long transgenic worms, barely visible to the naked eye, by sticking DNA into their gonads. We couldn’t find syringes small enough, so we had to make our own. First, we would heat a glass tube about a tenth of a millimeter thick and break it to make a needle. Then we’d snap off the sealed tip to make sure it was open for injections. The improvised instrument is very finicky to make, but it does its job really well.

5-milliliter round-bottom flask
5-milliliter round-bottom flask Britt Spencer

Jenna Franke, graduate student at University of California, Berkeley

This little vessel is the pioneer of flasks in my lab. I use it to practice small-scale reactions on fluorescent dyes I haven’t tested before.

1-micrometer magnetic beads
1-micrometer magnetic beads Britt Spencer

Nicole Green, doctorate in Biochemistry at Kansas State University

My lab looks at how muscles grow and develop at the level of individual proteins. We grind up dead flies and mix in magnetic beads coated to bind with certain molecules. The beads draw everything important toward a magnet, making it easy to isolate the material that matters.

5-millimeter needle hooks
5-millimeter needle hooks Britt Spencer

Hernán Vázquez Miranda, wildlife genomicist at University of Nebraska, Lincoln

When we prepare mice and voles for preservation, we have to clean up their delicate skeletons. So we let 2-millimeter-wide dermestid beetle larvae eat the flesh inside the skull and around the ribs.

After the bugs grow up and then die, we carefully remove them with needle hooks. You can’t get these tools at Walmart, so many are handmade—​and that’s hard work. When a researcher makes a perfect hook, they treasure it for the rest of their life.

4-micrometer nanobot
4-micrometer nanobot Britt Spencer

Louis Rogowski, mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University

We use a magnetic field to propel each bacterium-size mechanical swimmer through blood vessels or tissues. With this technique, we’d like to create nanobots for surgery or targeted drug delivery.

As told to Eleanor Cummins

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Tiny issue of Popular Science.