Scientists Repurpose Bubble Wrap for Low Cost Medical Tests

Nearly everyone loves to pop bubble wrap, but now one group scientists think those tiny pockets of air actually provide a cheap and durable way of preserving and testing biological samples.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Normally, scientists working on samples in the lab would use what are known as well assay plates, which is a fancy name for what is essentially a simple flat plate that is pitted with lots of “wells” that are employed as small test tubes. The plates are used for a variety of things, and are considered a necessity in most laboratories today.

Surprisingly though, they aren’t that cheap. The plates can cost anywhere between one to five dollars a piece. This might not sound a lot, but for some areas of the world that can price them out of medical testing, and unfortunately there have been very few low-cost alternatives–until now.

George Whitesides, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, is searching for low-cost medical and scientific diagnostic tools by repurposing materials that are already being manufactured at a large scale and for low cost. Essentially, he wants to take existing products and use them for science–like using a bicycle as a power source, for instance.

Whiteside’s team has already created a method to use simple everyday paper to test water quality, and has also hit on the idea of using a CD player as a centrifuge.

Now, writing in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the team believes that the gas-filled compartments in that common packing material known as bubble wrap can act as a container for storing samples, like blood or urine. It could even be used to store certain chemicals so long as the sheets are handled carefully, and should even be suitable for bioanalyses.

Bubble wrap also offers a number of advantages, chiefly that because the inside of the bubbles are actually sterile, there would be no need to have to invest (for these purposes at least) in expensive autoclaves, which are used in the lab to sterilize equipment via high pressure saturated steam. You may also be familiar with an autoclave as the machine that tattoo artists use to sterilize their needles. Cutting out the autoclave would be particularly helpful in nations where the electric supply is temperamental or where there is no supply at all.

In order to demonstrate that the bubble wrap really is fit for purpose, the team injected blood into the bubble wrap’s air-pockets using syringes and then sealed the holes with nail hardener. They then ran tests for anemia and diabetes, which they completed successfully. The team also grew microbes of things like E. coli in the blisters, showing that creating cultures in the bubble wrap is possible. What’s more, they were also able to cultivate Caenorhabditis elegans, an organism that is frequently used as a model for various biology experiments.

“The bubbles of bubble wrap, therefore, can be used for storing samples and performing analytical assays, a function that has the potential to be especially beneficial in resource-limited regions, and in very cost-sensitive applications,” the team says in a press release.

This research, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is part of a wider effort to help so-called developing nations develop independent medical testing facilities and programs, and to create medical testing equipment that is better suited to non-lab conditions.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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Debbie Crowe
Debbie Croweabout a year ago

I love hearing about recycling or repurposing. I use bubble wrap for fragile X-mas ornaments!

Mary B.
Mary B.about a year ago

I never throw away bubble wrap. It is useful for so many things.

Natasha Salgado
Natasha Salgadoabout a year ago


Jane R.
Jane R.about a year ago

I think this is a great idea. Re-use something usually thrown away.

Maria Teresa Schollhorn
Maria Teresa Schollhornabout a year ago

Interesting idea.

Debra G.
Debra G.about a year ago

Great idea! The McGyver school of ingenuity.

Janet B.
Janet B.about a year ago


Michele B.
Michele B.about a year ago

what an awesome idea. some one put their thinking cap on for this one!

Janis K.
Janis K.about a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

Tammy D.
Tammy D.about a year ago

neat! what a great idea.

now i'll feel even more guilty for popping the occasional bubble...