Brazilian Sandflies and Hacked Webcams

DIY feeder with mad invetor and an enthusiastic assistantOn the 29th July, the Manchester DIYBio group hosted a double bill of scientific wonders featuring Brazilian sandflies (that’s Phlebotominae to you and me ) and DIY microscopes.

The first session was led by Dr. Rod Dillon from the the University of Lancaster who, along with his team, gave us some background information on the Brazilian sandfly and, most importantly, the diseases it spreads. Sandflies infected by the protozoan Leishmania parasite spread a disease called Leishmaniasis, a disease with the next worst impact on humans after malaria. This disease can cause disfiguring afflictions as well as lethal complications within the spleen which can be seen as the victims’ abdomens swell up, leading to their eventual death. Scientists are still working on a vaccine, so research into the parasite’s genome is crucial. In fact, genome based screening techniques are already used to screen potential vaccines.

We were introduced to several techniques commonly used in the lab – all with a suitably DIY twist. For example, instead of using a commercial feeder filled with blood kept at a constant temperature, Dr. Dillon gave a demonstration with a cocktail jigger filled with warm sugar solution (and some added red dye for artistic effect), some pieces of chicken skin and a makeshift clamp made out of bamboo and elastic bands.

Once the Brazilian sandflies were feeding happily on their sugar solution, we moved onto their more unfortunate relatives who would be the subject of a dissection or two. Using some ultra sharp needles, a series of sandflies were beheaded, dissected and had their entrails drawn out. Usually in the laboratory, the next stage would be to examine the innards and check for parasites, but as all of the sandflies used here were completely uninfected, in this case it was mostly an opportunity for us to get familiar with insect anatomy.

Video by flipwuk
The next feature on the bill saw various attendees creating DIY microscopes out of webcams. A webcam lens is designed to take in the maximum scope and output it on a smaller scale. By flipping it around, you can create your own microscope and record microscale stills and videos on your own computer. Armed with our makeshift microscopes and a perhaps unhealthy supply of curiosity, some of us were able to take a closer look at our dissected sandflies and were rewarded by incredibly detailed and rather beautiful images.
A webcam transformed into a beautiful microscope
All the activities, coupled with some excellent caipirinhas ensured we had an evening that managed to be both fun and educational. We got to learn about ongoing research, a chance to have our deep and probing questions answered by an expert in the field, get a real taste of the techniques used by scientists to make their discoveries with the added bonus of learning how to turn a bit of unwanted technology into something useful that could potentially save a DIY Biologist a few hundred pounds. All this and more to the background of Brazilian beats and videos of bloodsucking sandflies. What more could you want?

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