Plastination in BMS

Mud puppies


For readers who have not been exposed to the term plastination, it refers to the process of infusing animal or plant tissues with a variety of plastic or silicone products to render the tissues odor-free and permanently preserved. The process was developed in Germany by Dr. Gunther von Hagens and made popular through his many Body Worlds exhibits around the world. 


Plastination at GVSU began in 2007 when biologist Bruce Ostrow spent a sabbatical semester studying in the plastination lab at the University of Michigan to learn the methodology and produce a few plastinates (the term used for specimens which have been plastinated) for the BIO and BMS departments.  

Two years later, in 2009, anatomist Tim Strickler took a sabbatical semester to investigate the possibility of teaching human anatomy with plastinated specimens and to visit von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination facility in Guben, Germany. This visit led to the acquisition of a number of von Hagens specimens, which are currently being used to teach students in our anatomy and anatomy and physiology labs.

In December of 2010 several of the BMS anatomy faculty toured the new MSU College of Human Medicine Secchia Center in Grand Rapids and noticed a sign which read “Plastination Lab” outside a room on the human anatomy floor. Inquiries were made about possible cooperative use of the facility. Negotiations on this idea spanned nearly three years, but in the end it was decided that it would be better for each institution to have its own facility. As the negotiations were coming to a close in 2013, Dean Antczak generously allocated the funds needed to purchase the supplies and equipment required to start the GVSU plastination lab. Room 217 in Padnos Hall was selected as the perfect location by virtue of its robust airflow and ventilation. During July of 2013 Tim Strickler completed a workshop at the University of Toledo to learn a variety of plastination techniques, and in June of 2014 anatomist Dawn Richiert and anatomy lab supervisor Kim Wieber completed the same workshop. Plastination of pig hearts and kidneys began in 217 Padnos Hall in September 2013.

Narcine sp.

Narcine sp.

The Process

The plastination process begins with the dissection of a specimen, followed by the specimen being washed and bleached, and then dehydrated in acetone.  The dehydrated specimen is then placed in a vacuum chamber filled with liquid silicone.  

As acetone is drawn out of the specimen under vacuum, silicone is drawn into the tissues until all of the acetone has been removed and replaced by silicone. The specimens are then posed in what will be their final positions and treated with a catalyst, which causes the silicone to set up and become dry to the touch. They are then ready to be used by students in our anatomy and biology labs. Carefully treated, these specimens will last for decades, and their use is completely without the mess and exposure to dangerous chemicals, which is usually associated with wet specimens.

There are two silicone plastination techniques—one done at -20°C or colder and the other at room temperature. We are using the room temperature technique, which produces specimens equal in quality to the cold technique and also uses much less energy. In addition, the silicone polymer remains fluid and can be used repeatedly. The cold mixture will set up at room temperature and therefore has to be kept cold whether or not it is being used to process tissue.

Plastinates produced

Plastinated specimens produced in the GVSU lab in the past year range from a variety of vertebrates used in several biology courses (fish, salamanders, frogs, turtles, cats and fetal pigs) to human specimens acquired from the University of Michigan for this purpose. MSU does not permit us to retain specimens beyond their normal two-year period of use, so their material cannot be plastinated. We have also managed to plastinate a few invertebrates and a few plant specimens. With the addition of two large (52” x 18”) vacuum tanks in the winter of 2014 we are now able to plastinate rather large specimens and are currently working on several of them, including a human torso and a 2-headed calf.

Recycling and energy efficiency

Because the plastination process uses large amounts of acetone and alcohol, one of the most important pieces of equipment in the lab is our recycler, which is able to reclaim acetone, ethanol, and propanol. As the specimens are dehydrated in acetone the water content of the solution increases. We start the dehydration process with 98% acetone (the concentration of the end product from the recycler), and when it declines to 80-85% we remove it for recycling and refill the dehydration container with fresh 98%.  Since the start of the lab in September 2013 we have reclaimed over 280 gallons of acetone and about 24 gallons of ethanol. We have also made our recycler available to the chemistry department for their recycling needs. 

Human placenta

Human placenta

List of plastinates produced to date

  • 35 fish                                                         
  • 12 salamanders                                      
  • 1 turtle                                                      
  • 6 small mammals
  • 34 organs (human and other mammal-includes 6 hearts, 9 brains)
  • 6 human joints
  • 1 human placenta 
  • a number of human subcutaneous bursae
  • 1 human torso
  • 1 human arm
  • 2 human hands
  • 3 invertebrates (caterpillars, crayfish)
  • 6 plants—voodoo lily flowers and osage orange fruits

Future plans

With the completion of the new science building at GVSU in the summer of 2015, the plastination lab will move to a larger space on the second floor of Padnos Hall, where we will be able to not only produce plastinates, but also store them all in a central location. This will allow us to keep track of our quickly expanding collection to insure that the specimens will be easier to locate when they are needed.

Page last modified March 10, 2017