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How Automation Will Take Scientific Innovation to New Heights

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The following article is an opinion piece written by Rich Ellson. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

Sophisticated lab instruments let us do things we could hardly have imagined a decade ago. Researchers, from biopharma and biotech to universities and governments, are investing in lab instruments and techniques that speed up their research. Easy automation, improved workflows and miniaturized experiments combine for fast and accurate results. These exciting trends in the lab promise to grow in the coming years.


Automation will continue to change how we spend time


Lab instruments are ever more automated. That means less manual work and fewer errors as well as greater speed, accuracy and flexibility. Liquid handlers used across a wide range of research are my specialty. Some piston-based liquid handlers have made striking advancements. Some have onboard cameras to check that reagents are loaded correctly for complex experiments. Some use advanced automation to move materials without the need for a researcher to be present.


Automated instruments streamline and speed up workflows. The challenge and opportunity is that automating one element invariably presents new bottlenecks to solve. For example, the ability to combine many compounds using automation makes work go faster, but it may also require automated ordering. This in turn may streamline work to the point of requiring new methods of data collection and analysis. The trick is to determine the required level of automation for a given workflow and to address the outcomes that might occur—which, though challenging, is a good problem to have.


Miniaturization will continue to make brilliant ideas possible


I helped develop a liquid handler that uses sound waves to move liquids in the most complex of protocols. This acoustic liquid handler transfers nano- to micro-liter volumes for unprecedented miniaturization.


Automation, particularly for acoustic liquid handlers, is synergistic with miniaturization. The miniaturization of lab workflows can speed processes by a factor of 100. For example, Golden Gate and Gibson DNA assemblies and the polymerase chain reaction move from the microliter to the nanoliter scale. When working with smaller quantities, processes tend to get faster. What’s more, they get more accurate and cheaper, cutting reagent costs by 20- to 100-fold. At that point, the sky is the limit. Innovative, outside-the-box applications now become possible.


A great example of a non-intuitive application of automation and miniaturization is in the food industry. Traditionally, male chicks are destroyed soon after hatching because they are not valuable to the industry. Sexing was not feasible until after hatching. The resultant destruction of the male chicks raises ethical concerns. Furthermore, post-hatch sexing doubles required energy requirements and incubation space. An automated method now exists to sex the egg, using an instrument to extract a minuscule amount of fluid to analyze for biomarkers. The instrument determines the sex of the egg within a second and the male eggs are used for other purposes.


It’s not easy to dream up new applications, because they require innovative mental leaps. But as we envision and embrace the possibilities of increased automation and miniaturization, we will have more personalized medicine, better diagnostics, less expensive and more readily available testing methods, and so on. More knowledge means the development of applications that can change behaviors and practices—and this is when human (and animal) health really begins to shift.


Lab working—remotely?


Before the pandemic, the world was moving slowly and somewhat unevenly toward remote work. COVID-19 was a shockwave that accelerated the shift. Now, many employees prefer to work from home, and companies are letting them. Though lab work does not seem to be amenable to remote work, thanks to sophisticated and automated instruments, researchers can be as productive at home as they are in the lab. For instance, a researcher can set up a complex multi-component experiment and walk away. The researcher can start and monitor the work from home, with no need to return to the lab for hours or days.


Some instruments are so intelligent that they can contact the service department for maintenance, part replacement or troubleshooting. These capabilities allow the researcher to focus on larger scale thinking and planning rather than minutia.


Virtual labs, remote labs and cloud labs are all extensions of the remote work movement. In these models, a researcher can remotely send instructions for an experiment run on the other side of the world. This is especially useful for smaller companies that may not have the required equipment or materials in-house. Companies are now building tools to manage experiments in cloud labs, closing the gap between user and service provider. The ecosystem is getting very interesting, and large sums of money are being invested in these new models. We will continue to see development along these lines in the coming years.


Smaller, smarter devices simplify or modernize old processes


Older techniques are being revitalized via both automation and miniaturization. For instance, flow cytometers, which sort cells by surface biomarkers, were large, cumbersome instruments requiring extensive hands-on time. Despite the utility of cytometers, some labs shipped their cell sorting to core labs. It was not practical to have one in-house. But now some flow cytometers fit the benchtop, require less labor and are more versatile. While not fully automated, the improvements are significant. Labs that outsourced their work now perform it in-house. This has returned control to the lab and convenience to the researcher.


Likewise, instruments used for DNA cleanup have not been updated in 30 years. Their operation required constant attention and hundreds of touchpoints. Now a small, toaster-sized instrument updates the process. It reduces touchpoints, eliminates mundane tasks and lets researchers spend time in more useful ways.


Looking forward


The future of life science research is bright. Sophisticated instruments with greater capabilities will illuminate new understanding in biology. The interdisciplinary collaboration we foster here will make the tools both richer and more streamlined. My team and others will continue to build new automated instruments for miniaturized work. We will work with our partners and collaborators to determine their needs and visions. With our groundbreaking tools, investigators will transform life science research in fundamental ways.