One of the biggest frustrations synthetic biologists and other life scientists face is time lost due to menial, manual wet lab processes such as pipetting or interval plate readings. These processes can now be easily automated, permitting researchers to use their time to analyze data and design new experiments — or, as many say, to do real science. The field of automation is growing, and several companies are developing the next generation of automation equipment.
Recently we spoke with Chris Grimley, Vice President of Marketing at Labcyte, Inc., a leader in automated acoustic liquid handling. A core component of their revolutionary technology, acoustic droplet ejection (ADE), utilizes sound waves to cleanly, precisely move liquid from one plate to another. Their suite of Echo® Liquid Handlers can handle extremely small volumes at high-throughput and negate the need for pipette tips, saving researchers time, money, and resources. Here are Grimley’s thoughts on where automation is headed, who stands to benefit the most from automation, and how biologists’ roles may change as the use of automation increases.
What are the most exciting trends you’re seeing in automation today?
We are most excited to see the adoption of automation throughout life sciences, particularly in synthetic biology, to continue to grow rapidly. The drive to apply automation to new workflows for gene synthesis, quality-control, and functional testing has pressured automation providers to evolve their offerings. For Labcyte, this has led to the development of larger scale platforms with more flexibility to allow researchers to quickly adapt to changing requirements.
In addition to increasing the scale and flexibility of the automation used in their laboratories, many researchers are investigating new methodologies, software, and chemistries to make routine workflows more amenable to laboratory automation. At Labcyte, we have leveraged partnerships with our users in these evolving spaces to align our products and developments to help our users take advantage of these new tools and methods.
What fields or applications stand to benefit the most?
As mentioned before, synthetic biology is already starting to see tremendous value in automation. That will have an impact on both industrial and academic organizations working in this area. Elsewhere we have seen continued growth in the use of automation in areas of personalized medicine, cancer research, and drug discovery. These areas are seeking similar benefits from applying automation to routine workflows that are critical to their productivity and success.
How will acoustic movement of liquid contribute to those advances?
Automated acoustic liquid handling has proven to be a critically enabling technology when increasing the scale of a workflow that requires precise and accurate transfer of liquid. There are several reasons for this. Since Labcyte launched the first acoustic liquid handling system, the Echo® Liquid Handler, many organizations immediately found value in the ability to reduce the amounts of sample and reagents used to conduct experiments. This miniaturization, as it is typically called, lowers the cost to repeatedly process samples through assays to enable an increase in throughput without incurring high operating costs.
In more recent years, users across life science have been able to demonstrate additional advantages, including the reduction of liquid handling errors due to the non-contact nature of acoustic liquid handling, higher transfer speeds for cherry-picking and pooling samples, and improved data quality due to more precise and accurate transfer of samples and reagents. Some have also taken advantage of the Echo system’s ability to acoustically analyze the properties of liquids to monitor their sample libraries over time. These benefits all combine to further improve the efficiency of automated workflows that incorporate acoustic liquid handling.
How will the scientist’s role change in response to increasing automation?
The more commonly identified impact of implementing automation in a laboratory is the elimination of burden on scientists to conduct repetitive manual tasks. While that remains a critical benefit, we have seen many of our users employ automation strategically to enable workflows that may not have been possible or affordable otherwise. Labcyte has regularly engaged with industry partners, cutting-edge researchers and customers to couple innovative technologies and methodologies to advance research in new ways. In this context, scientists are using automation for much more than simply offloading repetitive work.
What are your recommendations for researchers interested in implementing automation?
In many cases, there is a greater benefit from adapting workflows to automation and new technology instead of simply applying automation to an established workflow. To do this successfully we have found that researchers must partner with technology providers and work closely with them to design and implement effective solutions involving automation. This collaborative approach is often mutually beneficial and can lead to technological advancements beneficial to the industry.
Note from the editor: Thank you to Labcyte for sponsoring SynBioBeta 2019: The Global Synthetic Biology Summit. Join us October 1-3 in San Francisco to see how synthetic biology is disrupting lab automation, consumer products, food, agriculture, medicine, chemicals, materials, and more.
To learn more about Labcyte’s technology, watch our SynBioBeta Deep Dive with Amyris and Labcyte on increasing strain construction efficiency and reducing reaction volumes.