Bioprinting is printing with biological materials. Think of it as 3D printing, but with squishier ingredients! There's a lot of work being done at research labs and big companies like Organovo on print human tissues and human organs, with an eye towards drug testing, and transplantation into humans. Check out these amazing TED talks by Anthony Atala, for example:

Anthony Atala: Growing new organs
Anthony Atala: Printing a human kidney

All this sounds incredible complex, but the fact is that the basic technologies are very accessible - it's all based on inkjet and/or 3D printing! So a bunch of us at BioCurious decided we wanted to play around with this technology ourselves - and the BioPrinter Community Project was born! (Come join us, every Thursday evening at BioCurious!)

We wrote this instructable in part to document our project for our fellow Citizen Scientists in the DIYbio community, so it's getting a little long. For those who want a quick 1-minute intro, you may want to check this little video:

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Step 1: Hacking an old inkjet printer to print biomaterials

We started out by messing around with an old inkjet printer that we literally saved from a sidewalk somewhere. There's already plenty of interesting things you can do with an low-end off-the-shelf inkjet printer, but they do have some limitations, which we'll get into in the next Step (or skip straight to Step 3 for how we built our own bioprinter from scratch, that you can see in the first picture above).

Undressing the Printer

We disassembled an abandoned HP 5150 inkjet printer for use as a bioprinter. Just rip off all the plastic covers you can find, but make sure you can still operate the reset buttons etc. on the front panel.

There's a little momentary switch that senses whether the cover is open. After you've ripped off the cover, you will need to close that switch to be able to print anything. You can just press it down by hand or with a toothpick, glue a little piece of plastic or a screw onto it to make it easier to depress, solder on an on/off switch, or even just bridge it with a piece of wire (so it thinks the cover is always closed).

There's also a momentary switch inside the paper handling mechanism that senses whether paper has been loaded. You may need to rewire that one as well is you plan to mess with the paper handling.

Once you've got your printer all undressed, and figured out how to activate the cover-closed switch - print something! It'll be a good test to see if you've knocked something loose and whether you can still operate all the buttons. Plus, it's just darn cool to see an inkjet printer do its job up-close. Keep your fingers out of the way though - those cartridges move fast!

Cartridges Prep

Next task is prying open an ink cartridges, so you can fill them with something more interesting. We will be using brand new cartridges for the printer, because old cartridges tend to have residual ink clogging their nozzles. However, you might want to practice opening expired cartridges first. Wouldn't hurt to do a test print, and flush the print head, if your printer software provides that option.

After taking off any labels, you'll see that most cartridges have a lid that's glued into place, usually with some small vent holes to let air in as ink flows out. If you run an Exacto knife or box cutter along the seam long enough, you should be able to cut through some of the glue, and pop the lid off fairly quickly. WARNING – boxcutters are SHARP! If you're a kid, get some responsible adult to help you with this! If you're an adult - consider protecting your hand with a knife-proof glove, and/or clamping down the cartridge in a vise while you're doing this.

Alternatively, you can cut off the lid using your favorite power tool. *Much* easier, but not quite as clean. Keep in mind that you may need to be able to put the cartridge back together again, to get it to fit into the cartridge holder. If anyone knows of an easier way to open inkjet cartridges, post something in the comments! Maybe there's some solvent that will loosen up the glue without dissolving the cartridge itself?

Once the cartridge is open, you'll see that the entire ink reservoir is taken up by a little sponge that holds the ink in place. Color cartridges have separate ink compartments with their own sponges (typically Cyan-Magenta-Yellow, not Red-Green-Blue, since printing colors on white paper is a subtractive color process). You can squeeze out any remaining ink and keep it for later experiments (e.g. for some paper chromatography). Next, rinse, rinse, and rinse some more with distilled or deionized water-we don’t want to clog the print head with mineral residue.  We want to get all that ink out of there, so it doesn't interfere with our experiments.

Once the ink reservoir is completely clean, fill it partway with distilled or deionized water, put the lid back on, pop it back into the cartridge holder, and print something. Chances are, no matter how well you rinsed, you'll still see some residual ink coming out. Just keep printing until it's printing clear, and then print some more.

We discovered that our cartridge actually slowly leaks through the print head when you fill it completely with water, but it does not leak when you only put in a small amount. That actually provides a very convenient way to flush out the print head, without having to print.

Filling the Cartridges

At this point, what you want to put in the ink cartridge is entirely up to your imagination! We started out by putting some green food coloring in the formerly black ink cartridge, and printed out a test page to show that it worked. You could also try filling up the color cartridge with fluorescent dyes of your choice, and print out you own blacklight posters. Or, put some invisible ink in the black cartridge, and print invisible messages to your friends.

As our first real "bioprinting" experiment, we wanted to start with something simple, instead of jumping straight into printing with live cells. We decided to print with a solution of arabinose onto filter paper. Then we cut out the filter paper, and put it onto an agarose plate on which we had grown a lawn of E. coli that we had engineered to carry the pGLO plasmid. This plasmid carries the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), under control of an arabinose-sensitive promoter. (Stay tuned for an instructable on how to make your own GFP-expressing E. coli).

As a result, wherever we had printed arabinose on the filter paper, we now saw the E. coli light up green under UV light! Note that the beauty of this experiment lies in its simplicity: we only had to print with a simple sugar solution, rather than with bulky live cells; and we were printing on paper, so we didn't even have to change the paper handling machinery. You could also try printing with antibiotics, or even proteins, such as enzymes or growth factors.

The second-to-last image above shows our first test print, where we has printed arabinose over half of the filter paper - and half of the plate lights up under UV light. In the second image, we had printed the BioCurious "eyeball" logo. Success! Unfortunately the sharpness of the image definitely leaves much to be desired. Presumably, the arabinose tends to diffuse through the filter paper, which smears out the printed pattern. We should be able to do much better by printing directly on the agarose.
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This project really very cool!

Iam impressed.

hannanzr10 days ago

Hi !

Great project . is it possible to get the codes used for the project. im trying to figure out how to use inkshield for a similar project of mine and im only a beginner :)

Thanks alot !

anilozcan1 month ago


tsimon571 month ago

How about using a cnc milling machine to cut a precision opening in the top of the ink cartridges. Then another part could be machined to fit in the opening to close it. Look at the Othermill - as a suggestion.

clever, i'll give this a go when they come to town!

AbrarN2 months ago

hello, does anyone have a sample of the arduino code? please email me

davidbarcomb3 months ago

Excellent project. Must try this

Interesting! But I have a question. What happened to the plate of E.coli on the agar plate? Wouldn't the cells eventually die off or if given nutrients grow so that the words were obscured? Is there any way to preserve the cells besides a picture? Or is deterioration inevitable?

I am working on a presentation for College, does anyone know what the price is? I would also like to know what will the market for this be? Will it be distributed to hospitals or will it be able to be used in small clinics?

LezlyC5 months ago

Hi Alex! I visited BioBots website! When will the BioBots be available?

AlexG17 months ago

We are working on something similar over at BioBots. A low cost, high resolution, 3D bioprinter that is revolutionizing the field of regenerative medicine.

paverphalange7 months ago

Extremely good...!!

motherprune8 months ago

Its really good :)

cobbledbeard8 months ago

Really good

mousepaper8 months ago

Thats astounding...

Its magnificent :)

amazedgreen8 months ago

Very cool!!

fastbobble8 months ago

Thats impressive

gorgeddamp8 months ago

Thats impressive

clearedeager8 months ago

Thats excellent

illrings9 months ago

Its extremely good :)

airbugger9 months ago

Reading this Instructable gives me chills!

Thats extremely good...

headlymph9 months ago


tealrink9 months ago


grousebandit10 months ago


spongeraffle11 months ago

Its really good :)

workexaminer11 months ago

Very good...!!

s551 year ago
so awesome
gazumpglue1 year ago

Wow, thank you so much for sharing, love reading about things like this. So interesting.

Mab2521 year ago

Awesome instructable! I'm actually constructing it for my Senior Project. What code did you use to run the printing?

Redo the whole thing. Video every step. Put it on Youtube.

Please and thank you.

profort1 year ago
Amazing does not do this justice.
nerys2 years ago
for inkjets I would go with Canon or epson multi tank printers. the reason is you can get "empty" ink tanks pretty cheap for them that are designed to be refilled and they are cheap. since they come empty there is no ink residue to clean out and nothing to cut slice break or saw open as they are designed to be easily filled.

remember the OLDER the inkjet the better. new and or higher end inkjets have 2 and even 1 picoliter nozzles meaning whatever bio matter you put in their will probably just clog the nozzles up. so think OLDER.

Here is an ebay example. 110773910917 those come empty and are designed to be refilled so very friendly to this kind of project.

also CIS or Continuous Inkflow Systems. although they usually come "full"
I know it's been a while for this posting - but One thought on getting inkjet printers with a bigger nozzle is to use old printers for the t-shirt industry. The one I can think up off the top of my head would be a Digital T shirt printer by Brother. They have to have larger nozzles for the viscous nature of t-shirt inks. As I remember the cartridges are big 1/5" x 6" x 3" and mount on the side - CMYK inks. Potentially, you could print different cell material depending on if you would like C M Y or K to print. Even overlapping the layers ( but you would need to know how to do a controlled separation - being a t-shirt printer artist, this is something that is required more than traditional printing. ) I don't recall if the cartridges open easily or come empty, but it would be worth looking at.
nerys nerys2 years ago
NOW single tank systems DO have a distinct advantage. the print head is built into the cartridge on many of them (like the HP and Lexmark printers) this means when you wear out or irrevocably clog the heads you can just get a new cartridge and you now have new head with new nozzles. SO that might actually be better.
Patrik (author)  nerys2 years ago
Exactly - all good points!

Of course, sufficiently old inkjets are getting harder and harder to get, and the cartridges will probably go our of production as well. The other issue is finding drivers for them, and especially trying to modify drivers (or even write your own!) to get more control over what the printer does.

Using an older 300dpi inkjet is definitely a viable option for bioprinting, especially if you manage to get your hands on an a printer like the HP 500, where people have already figure out a lot of the details.

We just felt it was easier, and had more growth potential, to start with a clean slate...
cglaw20131 year ago
BunnyRoger1 year ago
Very cool!!
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