Scientists turn to ancient Chinese woodblocks to develop new cell-printing technique
Scientists have abandoned high-tech devices for a 2,000-year-old Chinese woodblock in order to find an improved way of squeezing tiny, individual living cells out into orderly patterns for lab experiments. The new technique based on the ancient printing tools could significantly improve the survival rates of living cells and allow scientists to effectively print a variety of cells in a variety of shapes on just about any surface.
The researchers, led by Houston Methodist Research Institute scientists Dr Lidong Qin, developed the new technique after finding that current technologies for setting down a layer of cells are inadequate. "Inkjet-based cell printing leaves many of the cells damaged or dead. We wanted to see if we could invent a tool that helps researchers obtain arrays of cells that are alive and still have full activity," said Qin.
So the team of scientists from Texas and Taiwan turned to Chinese woodblock printing, which uses ink-filled wooden stamps to print on paper or textiles. As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220 AD, and woodblock printing remained the most common East Asian method of printing books and other texts, as well as images, until the 19th century. The art of woodblock printing in China is strongly associated with Buddhism, which encouraged the spread of charms and sutras, and was used to print Buddhist scriptures from as early as the 7 th century. In late 10th century, the complete Buddhist canon Tripitaka of 130,000 pages was printed with blocks, which took more than 20 years to complete.
“Woodblock printing is an efficient and convenient technology that revolutionized the printing world,” according to the study led by Kai Zhang of Houston Methodist Research Institute.
The scientists designed woodblock-like stamps made out of silicone and built little hooks regularly spaced along the sides of the canals. Then they pushed fluid filled with cells through the grooves of the stamp, using vacuum pressure to suck it through to the other side of the mould. The scientists found that their ancient and yet novel process, which they called block-cell printing (or BloC-Printing for short) could be done as quickly as in half an hour and with close to 100% cell viability, while previous high tech methods involving electricity-gated inkjet technology had a survival rate of 50 to 80%. What’s more, the materials to make each mould cost around $1, while an inkjet cell printer can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Woodblock printing has made tremendous contributions to the spread of knowledge, insight and artistic inspiration over nearly two millennia, and now it is revolutionising science.
Featured image: Chinese woodblocks. Photo credit.