Notes from the Lab: Robots in the Lab!

We were super excited for the premiere of the new Star Wars movie trailer a few weeks ago, but until that comes out in theaters, we have to entertain ourselves with the robots we have in the lab! Enter our latest crown jewels - the Hamilton Star and Nimbus (which we affectionately call Wall-E and Eve in honor of our staff’s children!)

We are always looking for ways to improve the number of samples we can process each day. This often involves figuring out how to transfer liquids more efficiently. For example, when extracting DNA from biological samples, a good portion of our time is spent moving different liquids to and from various containers using a pipette, mixing them them with the samples, spinning them in a centrifuge, adding other liquids, spinning them some more, and finally placing them very carefully into tiny wells on a PCR plate. In total, this process can involve pipetting almost 1,000 times - no small task! While some dedicated lab folks pride themselves on the speed and consistency of their pipetting in a similar way a quarterback might pride themselves on throwing a tight spiral, even the most enthusiastic pipetters might find this a bit tedious, or at least find it difficult to be consistent all 1,000 times.

This is Dan...pretending to pipette our old way...

Thankfully, we are excited to have our Hamilton Star and Nimbus liquid handling robots in our lab. On a basic level, they do just as their name suggest and move liquid around. However, the features that get us really excited include:

  • The ability to move 96 liquids at a time and fully load a PCR plate in just seconds
  • Automated DNA extraction using something called a positive pressure unit
  • Advanced pipetting technology that makes liquid transport extremely fast and consistent
  • Automated colony picking that stores pictures of each colony
  • A barcode scanner to log samples as they are loaded onto the device, which allows the software to automatically generate full logs of our samples

Initially, we will use the robots to move samples from some of our older plates into newer plates meant for archiving in our -80 degree freezers. In under and hour, we will be able to complete the transfer of dozens of plates, whereas the process may have taken many painful days or weeks by hand.

After that, we may use the robots to help process samples and extract DNA for some upcoming studies. This will allow us to process and analyze hundreds of samples each week and spend our time focusing on carrying out the study, analyzing the data, sharing the results, and making a real impact to policy and practice – and that’s the part that gets us really excited!

Here's a sneak peak of the Hamilton in action!