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Edinburgh Genome Foundry and Molecular Devices Team Up in UK’s First Fully Automated SynBio Lab

The Edinburgh Genome Foundry (EGF) opened on the University of Edinburgh (UE) campus last July with two ambitious goals. The first was to establish a national capability to create and modify long strands of DNA to give cells and organisms new and improved functions. The second was to build the United Kingdom’s first fully automated synthetic biology laboratory, an advanced research center from which researchers around the world can learn.

Spearheaded by UE’s Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology with support from the UK Research Councils’ ‘Synthetic Biology for Growth Programme,’ EGF is combining state-of-the-art hardware, innovative software and robotics to . As with any major synthetic biology initiative, the result can confidently be predicted to be a stream of innovations and new products in agriculture, medicine, energy, food and beverages, and other areas.

Aiming to manufacture genetic material on an unprecedented scale via fully automated processes, the design team assembled by EGF Co-Founder Dr Patrick Cai knew from the outset that one of their most important decisions would be the selection of a colony picker – the unflinching, eagle-eyed robotic assistant that would tirelessly scan illuminated culture plates, process the image with a powerful attached computer, and instruct a robotic arm tipped with pins to stab desired colonies and transfer the bacteria to a growth medium.

The first colony pickers developed in the 1990s were large, single-purpose, custom-built machines. Today they’re compact, off-the-shelf units that perform an entire range of applications. For example, Molecular Devices’ QPix System not only is capable of picking up to 3000 colonies per hour but also is able to plate up to 200 bacterial or yeast strains per hour, automate workflows from sampling and spreading to picking, and efficiently manage large, diverse populations for protein expression, biofuel research, enzyme evolution, phage display, DNA sequencing, library generation and management.

The QPix System is already one of the fastest pickers on the market. However, with additional workflow customizations, Molecular Devices can increase its application production by two to ten times and “ensure more than eight hours of walk-away time to increase the productivity of the scientists in the lab,” says Grace Mangialardi, team leader for Advanced Workflow Engineering Solutions (AWES), a multidisciplinary group of engineers and scientists that closely analyzes a lab’s goals and processes and customizes a full suite of Molecular Devices’ instruments to deliver the optimal solution.

“We have engineers of different disciplines — mechanical design, optical systems, chemical, software — and several Ph.D. scientists with specialties in imaging, detection and picking. Most of our projects involve a design-and-build engineer working in tandem with an application scientist for testing and biological validation prior to installing in the customers’ lab,” she added.

To deliver higher sample throughput for EGF, the AWES team integrated QPix System into the lab’s workflow so that it could plate and streak multiple samples onto automation-compatible SBS format trays. That required a customized QPix model with a new accessible back panel for robot access, on-deck automatic plate holders and smart software controls to enable the automated workflow and interact with the robotic system. A novel plating application and hardware was also designed for the lab’s specific needs.

“No other life science solution provider has a team of dedicated scientists and engineers with the sole purpose of customizing its devices and adding capabilities for new and novel workflow in this way,” says Mangialardi. “It is definitely a unique value proposition that we offer our customers.”

“Within life science discovery, there will always be the need to push the limits of what current technology provides in order to get to the next stage,” she continues.  “Our AWES Team provides the service to customize, automate and optimize your assay with industry and application experts, limiting the risk and increasing productivity quickly.”

Noting that EGF is “just on the verge of moving into production,” EGF Manager Dr Hille Tekotte describes the experience of working with Molecular Device’s AWES Team as “totally positive.”

“They addressed our desires and concerns in the actual customization of the instrument as well as software development. This will be an ongoing process, as we modify our process according to the workflows for various projects.”


Dan Forbush

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