Physical Science Blog

Pretty Fly (for a Small Guy)

An unusual team builds a pipetting robot out of Legos for a genetic engineering competition

November 14, 2009

On Halloween weekend, one hundred and twelve teams from 26 countries showed up at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Jamboree, an undergraduate competition hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They presented, on posters and in PowerPoint presentations, the results of their efforts to do synthetic biology — to build bacterial machines using artificial gene parts. Some tried (and a few succeeded) to engineer bacteria that can deliver drugs, detect land mines, talk to yeast, count, and smell like rain. Other teams invented the software and laboratory tools needed for engineering life.

One team, however, stood out like a parka in Tijuana. And it wasn’t because this team did exceptionally well (which it didn’t) or because this team built a machine that actually works (which it did).

No, this team left the hundred or so of us in the audience speechless at the end of its presentation because this team wasn’t made up of ten or more students from universities like Harvard and Heidelberg. This team was just one person: an 11-year-old boy named Gabriel See.

I don’t know how Gabriel found out about the competition, but somehow, he got it in his head last spring that he wanted to compete, and so he asked one of his professors — he takes mathematical biology courses at the University of Washington — for a project. He ended up building and programming what’s called a Liquid Handling System — basically, a pipetting robot — out of programmable Legos. Of course, it’s not nearly as high-tech as the commercial ones, but with a price tag of about $700 compared to as much as $10,000, it’s not a bad do-it-yourself solution for a genetic engineering team on a budget.

Unfortunately, Gabriel didn’t make it to his own presentation. He planned to fly out from Seattle on Saturday, but apparently he got so anxious about the competition he made himself sick. He did, however, send over a video of his presentation, which he filmed wearing yellow pajamas and sitting on his “Hello Kitty” bedspread. On top of his desk sat a lamp-sized contraption with a tray of liquid-filled wells and a giant Lego claw.

“Let me turn on BioBrick-o-Bot and you can see it in action,” Virtual Gabriel said. And the thing actually dipped its pipette in a well, sucked out some blue-dyed water, squirted it into another well, and even rinsed the tip in a little petri dish bath of distilled water. On the second go-round, it veered a bit off course and Gabriel had to give it a little nudge. But since I never built anything cooler than a Lego Christmas village, I’ll cut him some slack.

About the Author

Ariel Bleicher

Ariel Bleicher studied mathematics and world literature at Scripps College in California. In pursuit of adventure, she moved to Alaska, where she explored the Alaska Range in mountaineering boots and freelanced as a science writer for the Arctic Regions Supercomputing Center. Her writing has appeared in The Anchorage Press, Portland Monthly magazine and on


1 Comment

Gabriel See says:


I just want to clarify that I did not get so anxious about the competition that I made myself sick. The airline prevented me from boarding the flight to Boston because I was coughing badly. As you know, the air in the cabin is recycled, and they do not want to take the risk.

On the same day, my parents brought me to Children’s Hospital, hoping to get a letter from the doctor to certify that I do not have the flu. I was hoping to catch a later flight and still be able to present at the conference on Sunday. Unfortunately, I tested positive for Type A Influenza, and that shattered my hope of doing a live presentation at MIT.


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