Rice’s Open Source Optogenetics Sets the Example for the Future

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Researchers at Rice University have developed a cheap, open-source platform for the practice of optogenetics. We have an opportunity to thrive as scientists take an open-source attitude toward their work.

Optogenetics is a field of study that involves using light to control cells in living tissue, specifically neurons that are genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels.

It’s a relatively new field, one that was named Method of the Year in 2010, but it isn’t an easy method to use. Biologists can get a lot out of Optogenetics, but with little training in engineering or software design, their efforts can only achieve limited results.

We can thank Rice University, which is in Houston, Texas for changing the game on this one with their Light Plate Apparatus (LPA). The LPA is open-source hardware and software, meaning that the platform is freely accessible to the public.

The open-source nature of the LPA is providing us with another example of how open source culture will be the standard for industry and innovation in Industry 4.0. it focuses collaboration over competition and expedites R&D by bringing more commercially viable products to market faster, which drives down costs and increases the rate of development for all kinds of research.

We’re focusing on the medical field for this article, so first let’s take a deeper look at the LPA and how it will change the field of optogenetics.

Looking into LPA Optogenetics

According to Karl Gerhardt, “Over the past 5-10 years, practically every biological process has been put under optogenetics control.” This shows that optogenetics is on the rise, but as a new field of study, it has some hurdles to overcome. Thankfully, that’s where the LPA steps in.

Biologists have been developing the vital tools for optogenetics, but not the hardware that can put those tools to use. The LPA, then, is the hardware and software package that the biological community needs.

The device is comprised of a standard 24-well plate with sockets that accept LEDs from a broad spectrum of wavelengths. The total component cost for the LPA is around $400, or $150 if your lab has a 3-D printer, and the production time is roughly one day per unit.

The software, dubbed Iris, uses a graphical user interface that enables people to use the LPA without the need of specialized training or programming knowledge. What’s more, the software is completely open source and is published on GitHub so that everyone can create, share, and modify the program as needed.

The hardware is cheap, and the software is free, making the LPA a marvel of the fourth industrial revolution. Rather than staking a claim on a device that will innovate current scientific techniques, researchers are trying to disseminate their product as freely and accessibly as possible.

The Importance of Open Source Culture

We all know about Linux, and some thank Linus Torvalds for it every day. In modern capitalist societies, the idea of collaboration over competition can seem like the lame-duck of socialist science, but the truth couldn’t be further from that statement.

Scientific advances can be attributed, but not owned, by a person. Science often collaborates with the work of previous researchers, and this is how we have progressed into the modern age with our internet of things and industry 4.0.

With new file-sharing and cloud data storage technologies, open source software has the potential to change the world for the better. In the case of the LPA, a tool designed to enable optogenetics is going to be cheaply put into the hands of research labs around the world, and the field of optogenetics stands to advance faster with more researchers rather than just a few monetarily motivated ones.

Edgy Labs believes that an open source approach to experimentation and diffusion of knowledge is critical to building a better future. Would you agree?

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