Lab Automation – Pipetting many thousands of samples by hand is awful
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A BMG employee recently described a distant job interview for a position in a lab that was screening thousands of compounds without the benefit of lab automation capabilities. The interview didn’t ever really end, but it did result in a new appreciation for the benefits of laboratory robotics and self-discovery about how fast it’s possible for a person to run in the middle of a job interview.
Automating Mundane Tasks
Obviously most job applicants do not consider the potential to have a new repetitive stress injury named in their honor to be a perk. So lab automation of all sorts eliminates some of this unpleasantness by eliminating some daily duties that can be repetitive, dull, boring and repetitive. Lab automation frees scientists to focus on productive and interesting mental tasks. Beyond being labor saving, lab automation opens up avenues of research that simply aren’t humanly possible without robotics and automated liquid handling.
New Research possibilities
Many processes are feasible and even wide spread before automation improved productivity and distribution. Books existed prior to the printing press. Without automating production, it would still be possible to buy chocolate candy shaped like a large rabbit at Eastertime. With automated processing, chocolate bunnies are available to all consumers at an affordable price point. Handmade chocolates have a place, but the speed of production, consistency and the volume required to make every child ill by eating a piece of candy the size of a toaster simply wouldn’t be a reality without automation of production. Similarly, molecular biology and drug discovery will advance no matter what tools are available. But the purchase of a microplate reader, a liquid dispensing work station and a few robot arms immediately turns a potentially Sisyphean ordeal into a minus-80 freezer full of potential oncotherapy targets.
Harvard cancer researcher Judah Folkman became famous for isolating anti-angiogensis cancer therapies, but got almost as much mileage in New York Times interviews, seminars and receptions by describing the process necessary to isolate a few micrograms of endostatin from 21 quarts of mouse urine. It’s a thin imagination that doesn’t hear the phrase “21 quarts of mouse urine” and immediately begin calculating how many mice must be necessary for the job, the hours that must be kept to make sure your product of interest is harvested in a timely fashion, exactly how much urine a mouse produces in a day and exactly what sort and number of personal and hygienic principles must be compromised in the pursuit of knowledge. I am probably making it sound more fun than it was. Isolating tiny protein fragments from vast volumes of rodent excrement is fun to contemplate, but it took an extraordinary amount of labor, drive and potential reward to humanity before it was endeavored. There are entire fields of potential investigation that simply don’t exist without lab automation.
BMG Labtech and many of our users appreciate lab automation not just for the kind of research it makes possible or because of feelings of resentment toward tedious pipetting chores, but because wide adoption of lab automation drives a need for detection. Today’s fastest liquid handling robots can dispense into 384-wells in a matter of seconds. Users who don’t want the final step in a process to slow down the rest of their research need detection to happen rapidly. The PHERAstar FSX is the fastest plate reader that has ever been produced—it can accurately read two wavelengths from a 1536 well TR-FRET plate in 27 seconds—so we talk to a lot of researchers who care about accurate, sensitive detection and fast measurement and very little else.
A Robotic Arm
One of the first items in the shopping cart of the lab automation curious is an arm like the Hudson PlateCrane Cyclops. A robot arm can link a plate washer to an incubator and a microplate reader like the CLARIOstar so that busy labs can automate the processing of ELISA or increase throughput of a popular assay like CellTiter-Glo from Promega. When working with live cells, a robotic arm can shuffle plates back and forth between a plate reader and an incubator, as shown in the video here below.
Another benefit of lab automation with a simple robot arm is a that simple robot arm looks like a robot. For take-your-kids-to-work day or when a lab is visited by groups touring your institution, there’s an unrivaled sci-fi coolness to seeing arms and a camera operate and feeling like it might stop at any moment and demand to be taken to see Sarah Connor.
One of the most significant advances in laboratory automation in the last handful of years has been the introduction of acoustic nanoliter dispensing. Anyone who remembers being at a trade show and seeing Labcyte discuss their new products for the first time likely remember hearing an engineer say, “The Echo dispenses reagents into your plate without contacting the liquid, by using sound.” And almost certainly followed by the thought, “That does not make any sense.” Using directed acoustics to dispense microvolumes into low volume plates eliminates the cost and hassle that comes with buying, using and disposing of pipette tips. And it also eliminates the common pipette related issues of dilution, waste and potential cross contamination. Lab automation users who would like to automate drug discovery screening operations, ADME-Tox, cell based assays or biochemical assays can use far less reagent and read more samples quickly while reducing assay costs per well. Acoustic dispensing makes 1536- and 3456-well plate detection a feasible possibility. Coupled with a HTS reader like the PHERAstar FSX, a smoothly operating lab can generate over 122,000 wells per hour.
If you’re interested in learning more about what kinds of assays can be automated in your lab, please spend some time looking at application notes and publications at BMG’s applications center.