3D Printed Rats Make For Cheaper and More Ethical Dissections

iStock / iStock

Rats, one can only assume, are big fans of Maryland couple Bart Taylor and Tara Whittle. The pair have launched a new startup that is hoping to eliminate the need for real rats to be sacrificed in the name of scientific education.

It all started when Taylor, a necropsy technician, bought a PrintrBot 3D printer. At first, the possibilities were so vast he didn't know what to print; he began with plastic toys for his toddler daughter. But he wanted something more useful. His wildlife biologist wife suggested he try to print animal models, and it all clicked.

In high school, Taylor had hated the part of biology class where he had to dissect the rats. The smell was noxious, the chemicals irritating, and it didn't even work—he ended up failing the anatomy test and feeling awful for the rat's wasted death. So he thought that if he could print accurate 3D models, it would eliminate many of the ethical and comfort issues surrounding classic dissections.

“We can print an animal and structure the layers so that they feel like real tissue, and make a model a person could dissect without ever having to wear gloves, use sharp tools or kill an animal,” Taylor told Smithsonian.com. Last month, he and his wife founded NecropSynth to put this idea into practice.

It's estimated that high school classrooms use 6 to 12 million rat specimens for dissections each year. In addition to this vast waste of animal life, the lessons are expensive. While it costs anywhere from $8 to $12 per rat from a biological supply company, NecropSynth estimates each of their printed rats—their prototype is called the SynthDawley, a nod to the Sprague Dawley rat used in most labs—could cost as little as $2 to $3. What's more, they're planning on making the schematics for the models free for download so anyone with a 3D printer can make their own.

“A few people just couldn’t believe it. We’re not looking to sell this,” Whittle said of his plan at the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C.

Right now, the model is still in the works. The couple is in the process of figuring out how to print "bones" and "muscle" of different material simultaneously and make the various internal systems hollow and translucent so they could be highlighted one at a time with a colored gel. But science teachers at the National Maker Faire were excited for the potential.

"Everyone loved our idea," Whittle said. "They all recognized the issues of budgeting and safety and non-standard models being used in classrooms."

[h/t treehugger]