“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them” according to Henry Ford, the father of mass production. Laboratories are reopening worldwide, but we still face global disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has been delayed, supply chains are unstable, and social distancing guidelines may mean reduced capacity at research facilities for the foreseeable future.
Restarting our science safely and effectively, while facing the problems around inefficiency, supply chain, and sustainable research, is our next big challenge. How can we solve, rather than avoid, these problems with automation to make up for lost time and build a greener lab for the future?
There are three key benefits to automation: scientists spend more time researching and less time on repetitive processes; accuracy and reliability are improved compared to manual handling; and higher throughput allows more experimental power. However, the barriers to adopting automation and achieving reproducible, robust data are still largely misunderstood.
Robotic liquid handlers are not fragile pieces of machinery that require enormous temperature-controlled labs. Many liquid handlers are built for everyday benchtop use with the scientist, rather than a software engineer, in mind. Common liquid handling processes are easily programmed, and fast, effective user training means you can start using devices immediately without a specialist education in software.
Investment in an automated platform immediately pays off. Scientists can spend more time interrogating datasets, which grow dramatically with use of automation. Automation also removes constraints associated with manual pipetting, essentially eliminating human error, and increasing replicability and reliability of data. The researcher can get more creative with their Design of Experiments, with multifactorial experiments easier to carry out compared to manual handling. The result is not just more data, but better data.
More tangible benefits arise when using lower liquid volumes and precision instrumentation. During the pandemic, supply chains of research materials including plastic consumables like tips and assay reagents are not immune to disruption. Miniaturization of protocols saves on cost of reagent and plastic pipette tips, especially where precision instrumentation allows for reuse of tips. Using these processes, a lab can achieve a lot more using a lot less.
Automation is not a re-creation of what is performed by hand. Mechanical precision opens new possibilities for experimental design and miniaturization of protocols, and with the right device, saves both time and materials in the process. Common processes from kits can be simplified to the addition of reagents to a sample. The repetitive nature of these protocols is conducive to an automated workflow. How do we start making automation work for us?
The first step is identifying protocols used frequently that rely on time-consuming liquid handling steps. Similarly, any protocol prone to error or requiring careful tracking of multiple samples is suited to automation. Next generation sequencing, DNA library preparation, PCR preparation, protein crystallization, and small molecule screening are popular examples of common lab processes easily transferred to automated workflows.
Specialized robots, like the dragonfly and mosquito, use positive-displacement technology to account for factors like viscosity and surface tension which have a major impact on liquid handling at low volumes. While standard air-displacement pipettes are sensitive to pressure changes in the environment, positive-displacement tips interact with a piston which forms a solid sterile ‘cap’ in the pipette tip to directly dispense the sample or reagent. This allows the dragonfly and mosquito devices to deliver accurate and precise volumes reliably and rapidly in the nL – μL range.
The dragonfly discovery has a unique non-contact ‘injection’ system to dispense liquid. The speed of injection can be reduced for sensitive applications, and a 400 μm-wide tip nozzle ensures reduced shear force on delicate samples such as DNA and cells during pipetting. A single tip on the dragonfly can hold up to 4 mL of reagent and dispense aliquots rapidly, filling a 384-well plate in under 30 seconds when dispensing from multiple channels in parallel. The dragonfly is non-contact, allowing reuse of tips, which is not typical of many air displacement liquid handlers and helps reduce plastic waste. Homogenization of the sample occurs by turbulent mixing from the injection and diffusion at low volumes. Mixing by pipette tip is an optional function on the mosquito, useful for low volume applications that require homogenization.
Scientific research has a major plastic problem. All single-use plastic and nitrile gloves adds up to about 5.5 M metric tons of waste annually. COVID-19 testing exemplifies this, as six plastic pipette tips are required for each test – one for the sample and five for reagents. With millions of tests performed daily worldwide, the tip waste from COVID-19 testing is exceptional. Recycling is rarely an option in a laboratory setting, so how does automation help science tackle its addiction to plastic?
The most viable options are to minimize tip use and maximize tip reuse. By virtue of their precision and reliability, automated platforms produce fewer errors than manual pipetting and which can reduce tip consumption. However, many automated liquid handlers use air displacement tips or pressure and valve driven systems, resulting in comparable amounts of tip waste to manual handling.
Positive displacement pipetting, such as the dragonfly’s non-contact injection system, allows tips to be reused for dispensing common reagents thousands of times without risk of cross-contamination. Positive displacement pipetting also provides improved volumetric precision and accuracy compared to the others, which frequently need to be replaced or cleaned. Here, precision automation and volume reduction can reduce volumes of hazardous reagent used in processes, as well as curb excessive pipette tip usage.
Additionally, using a low volume protocol can further maximize the number of reactions achievable. This means using less reagent and reducing costs, as well as having a lower environmental impact. As supply chains faced disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, doing more with less became vital for those reliant on reagents and tips, such as diagnostic labs. Tips for the dragonfly and mosquito products are manufactured in the UK, ensuring a solid supply chain to our customers worldwide.
The COVID-19 crisis has granted us a unique opportunity to start fresh and tackle problems in line with a UN call for a greener post-pandemic world. In our efforts to make up for lost time, we can create a more efficient and sustainable research environment for the future.
For such an advanced field, biology has remained an under-industrialized profession. Only recently have standardized DNA parts and automated platforms begun to play a role in turning biology into a precision engineering discipline. In Henry Ford’s day, standardized parts made the automobile accessible to the public – more so when automation was introduced to the assembly line. The same hope exists for biology. Automation can yield a more replicable, efficient, and responsible research boosted by engineering-like precision and sustainable research practices across every field of biology.