3D-modeling model organisms

arabidopsis pendants lab

Over the past year I’ve branched out from marine microbiology and microfossils to add a series of model organism designs to my collection. Model organisms are non-human species that are used daily in research by multitudes of scientists worldwide and include the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, the ciliate Tetrahymena, the African clawed frog Xenopus, zebrafish and the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, along with several others.  These organisms have achieved a position of importance in scientific research not only because of their ease of growth in the lab and short regeneration times, but also because many of the biological mechanisms discovered in these organisms are fundamentally the same in all organisms, including humans. Arabidopsis thaliana flowerBack in my research days, I worked with genetic variants of the model plant Arabidopsis to try to understand the effect of glucosinolates, sulfur-containing plant metabolites, on herbivory by slugs.

Research with model organisms has led to a greater understanding of human disease by increasing our knowledge of DNA replication and repair, the cell cycle, carcinogenesis, the mechanisms of aging and gene expression.  To cite just one example, we now know, based on experiments with fruit flies and nematodes,how genetically controlled cell death (apoptosis) plays a role in cancer and other human diseases. Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly Without model organisms, the advancement of basic science and our basic understanding of human disease would be profoundly limited. For this reason, and to honor all of the scientists who are at their lab benches day after day doing the brute force work of discovery, I designed the model organism collection. The collection includes pieces for both men (tie bars, lapel pins) and women (pendants, earrings).

3D Pioneers Challenge

3D Pioneers Challenge NomineeI’m thrilled to announce that I’ve been nominated for a prize in the 3D Pioneers Challenge. The prizes will be awarded at the FabCon.3D convention in Erfurt, Germany on June 15. The purpose of the 3D Pioneers Challenge is to find designers who are “breaking new ground in the field of 3D printing and who understand the key trends in the industry. The Challenge seeks to uncover specialists from around the world who are thinking outside the box and — pushing boundaries.” I am proud to be included in this elite group of 29 international designers, and I look forward to meeting them and seeing their work at FabCon.3D.

My entry is entitled “Additive Manufacturing to Promote Museum Exhibits” and features the Opercularella pendant that I designed for the ARURA collection at the Leuchtenburg Museum’s “Porzellanwelten.” As a fan of museums of all disciplines, I look forward to future 3D-design collaborations with museums. Check out this video of my entry:

And if you’d like to see the other entries, go to the 3D Pioneers Challenge Facebook page:

The ARURA Collection

Opercularella blog banner photo

Leuchtenburg castle at night

On a clear day in Jena, Germany, if you hike to the top of one of the limestone hills surrounding the city and look directly south, you will see a site familiar to all who live here, the Leuchtenburg Castle. Perched above the Saale valley, this medieval fortress can be seen for miles and is especially lovely at night when it earns its name, the “Castle of Lights.” Recently, the Leuchtenburg Castle underwent an extensive renovation, including an architecturally stunning modernization of the porcelain exhibit and the gift shop. As part of this renovation, the Leuchtenburg Foundation enlisted the talented artist Alim Pasht-Han to create what is now the tallest vase in the world, the ARURA. The ARURA was carefully assembled from 360 honeycomb-shaped porcelain tiles, all hand-painted by Pasht-Han. The unique shape of these tiles lends strength to the vase and allows it to rise to a height of eight meters.ARURA vase

One striking aspect of this vase for me is that many of the paintings on these tiles are clearly inspired by the art of Ernst Haeckel. After posting on my Instagram account about my joy at seeing this beautiful vase, I was contacted by the curator of the Leuchtenburg Museum to see if I would be interested in designing some jewelry pieces based on the ARURA. I happily accepted this challenge and created two pendants, a pair of earrings and a figurine based on four of the ARURA tiles.  I’m excited to announce that these pieces can be purchased at the museum shop at the Leuchtenburg, at my Shapeways shop and my Etsy shop.

Ontogenie ARURA collection

3D-Printed Precious Metals

Calocyclas Blender model


If you’ve seen a 3D-printer at work extruding thick layers of plastic filament to build a skull or a vase, it might surprise you to learn that my jewelry is also 3D-printed. How is that possible? For starters, I don’t have a 3D-printer in my workshop nor do I have a traditional workshop. I design my 3D-printable models in my computer using a sophisticated CAD software called Blender. Blender is an open-source computer animation software suite created and maintained by a dedicated group of developers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It allows me to not only sculpt my jewelry, but also to sculpt, texturize and animate the insects and proteins in my scientific animations at Moves like Nature. Once I’ve produced a 3D-printable model, I send the file to a 3D-printing service like Shapeways or i.materialise and that’s where the magic happens. First, the file is 3D-printed in wax. Next, just like in traditional lost wax casting, a plaster cast is formed around the wax model, the wax is melted out of the plaster cast and the mold is filled with silver, bronze, brass, gold or even platinum. After this, the piece can be either left in its rough state or further polished. This process takes about three weeks, so a certain amount of patience is required.

A more direct technique for printing precious metals has been developed by the company EOS and is referred to as ‘Metal Additive Manufacturing.’ In this process, selective laser sintering (SLS) melds particles of a precious metal powder together. Layer by layer, the metal piece takes shape without the intervening steps of wax printing, plaster mold formation and metal casting. Although this technology is being used extensively in industrial metal production, it is still far more expensive than the lost wax casting method for jewelry production. The most wonderful thing about 3D-printing, though, is how fast the technology is changing and improving. Someday, I hope that I’ll be able to conceive a design, sculpt it and print it out in solid silver on my desktop 3D-printer in one day. Wouldn’t that be amazing!

Karl Bloßfeldt and the simplicity of form

Karl Bloßfeldt photography

I recently had the opportunity to visit an amazing exhibit at the Pinakotheke der Moderne, a modern art museum in Munich, Germany. Tucked away in one small gallery of this cavernous modern building was a trove of photos by the artist and teacher, Karl Bloßfeldt (1865-1932), a turn-of-the-century contemporary of one of my other favorite artists, Ernst Haeckel. After studying at the Unterrichstanstalt des Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseums (the Museum School for Decorative Arts in Berlin), he went to Rome and apprenticed with the artist Moritz Meurer.
It was there that he started building cameras and photographing plants at higher magnification than had ever been achieved before. He was, in essence, the first macro photographer of plants. Bloßfeldt went on to teach at the Berlin Academy of Art, using his photographs to communicate the beauty of nature’s forms and textures to his art and architecture students. In 1928, he published a compendium of his photographs entitled Urformen der Kunst (Prototypes of Art), a book that most certainly had a strong influence on Art Nouveau in Berlin, as well as throughout Europe and the world.
What appeals to me most about his art is that since the photographs are in black and white, the plants are reduced to their principal shapes and forms. There is no color to distract you from the shape of the plant, and your eye is also not distracted by the complexity of the whole plant. He chose one compelling structure per organism and captured it.

Karl_Blossfeldt_1As a 3D-print designer, I use his approach on a daily basis in my modeling. What is the fundamental structure? How do I recreate it without unnecessary distraction? How do I communicate the organism without using color? I think if Bloßfeldt was alive today, he would either be one of my main competitors, or one of my most prized colleagues.

The German Darwin

Ernst Haeckel

The Englishman Charles Darwin is a scientist who needs no introduction. His pioneering work on evolutionary theory, outlined in the ‘Origin of Species,’ has informed scientific research and created public controversy since its publication in 1859. That he had a devotee in Germany, a 25-year-younger upstart by the name of Ernst Haeckel, was well-known to Darwin. Darwin and Haeckel met several times, exchanging ideas despite the language barrier. These meetings have been recalled in a blog post written by Ernst Haeckel’s great-great-granddaughter. That Ernst Haeckel was a respected scientist in his own right is evidenced by his inclusion as one of the few foreigners on the famous British deep sea expedition aboard the H.M.S. Challenger. Haeckel developed his own theories on organismal evolution based on his rigorous examination and illustration of samples collected on this expedition and others. His recapitulation theory, the idea that the embryonic development (ontogeny) of an organism is somehow reiterated in its evolutionary history (phylogeny), has been largely discredited with the advance of biological research. Although some of Haeckel’s scientific ideas have not withstood the test of time, his artistic contributions engage and inspire to this day. To learn more about Ernst Haeckel, check out this excellent article by Jennifer Frazer in Scientific American.


unprintable models

One surefire way to have your day ruined is to get an email from your 3D-printing service entitled “Help us resolve issues with models in order 12345.” This happened to me recently for 3 models (pictured below) that had already been printed successfully in other materials, but were somehow not printable in a new material I was trying, a transparent plastic. How can this even happen?

The answer is that there are many different 3D-printing technologies. This is fabulous because it means models can be printed in a dazzling variety of materials…transparent resins, precious metals, elastic rubber-like materials, multicolour plastics and sandstone. Check out the materials at shapeways, i.materialise or sculpteo and be amazed! The tricky part, though, is designing for all of these materials because each printer has different design specifications. Wall thickness, wire thickness, minimum detail size, presence of interlocking parts, clearance between parts, overall size and other factors must all be taken into consideration before a model is printable in a specific material.

My transparent plastic models will be printed using a Stratasys Objet. This printer works by spraying a photopolymer resin in layers on a build platform and simultaneously curing the layers with ultraviolet light. It uses a gel-like support material during the printing that is removed after the print is finished. To remove it, the material is washed out with water jets through a hole in the model, and the hole must be at least 10mm in diameter. To make both the Spumellaria sculpture model and the Anthocyrtium earrings printable, I had to expand holes in the bottom of each model to 10mm. In addition, removal of the support material can damage delicate parts and so I also had to thicken up some walls in the Spumellaria pendant model. All three modified models are now on their way to the printers. Cross your fingers that it works!

Radiolaria, Foraminifera, Diatoms, and Coccolithophores

Radiolaria Foraminifera Diatoms Coccolithophores

Why am I so fascinated with these miniscule denizens of the sea? They’re certainly not as popular and beloved as dolphins, whales or jellyfish. To see them, you need to look through a microscope, and to even get these microscopic samples in the first place you’ll need to dive to the bottom of the sea and scoop up sea bed sludge or trawl the deep sea with a special net. I have a confession to make. I’ve only seen these organisms in photographs, never in real life, a situation I hope to remedy someday.

All of these unicellular marine organisms are either planktonic, floating in the water, or they are benthic, living in the sediment on the sea bed. Radiolaria and Foraminifera are zooplankton, that is, they eat other plankton, bacteria, or dinoflagellates. Diatoms and Coccolithophores, on the other hand, are phytoplankton and photosynthesize to feed themselves.

What connects them is that they all form intricate shells, made of calcium carbonate or silicon dioxide, punctured through with holes and often studded with delicate spines. Their multiply-perforated shells are quite unlike the shells of other marine mollusks, like clams and mussels. It is known that the holes function in nutrient exchange, and in the case of the zooplankton, allow amoeboid extensions from the soft inner core of the organism to protrude out from the shell, capture food, and drag it back inside the shell to be devoured. What isn’t fully understood, however, is why there are thousands of different shell patterns among these four groups, when probably a few designs would do the job. Perhaps ecologists will be able to answer this question someday.

For artists and designers, however, these shells represent a treasure trove of inspiration. Do they have bilateral, trilateral, or radial symmetry? Are the holes regularly or unevenly spaced? Is the overall shape a spiral, a bell, a cone, or something more complex? For a 3D-print designer, the spikes present special problems. In order to survive the physics of 3D-printing, the spikes and other wire-like features have to be modeled at a minimum thickness with respect to their length. This unfortunately eliminates many of the organisms from consideration as a 3D-printable model. Yet nature seems to be free from these rules, and makes these complicated structures in abundance.

Do you have a favorite Radiolarian, Foramiferan, Diatom or Coccolithophore? Drop me a line in the comments section and maybe I’ll give the modelling a try.