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Feature Articles : Jun 15, 2014 ( )
Labs Embrace Automated Liquid Handling
Rapid advancement in life sciences research is typically driven by technology that maximizes assay speed and throughput. The explosion in genomics research created by widespread adoption of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology is just one example.
Many laboratories are realizing significant gains in efficiency, thanks to automated liquid-handling technology that delivers accurate and precise dispensing of volumes in the nanoliter range. The popularity of modular systems that can be linked together indicates that researchers require flexibility as well as speed.
Plate-based procedures such as qPCR, immunoassays, and cell-based assays were among the first to be automated. While most laboratories take the first step in automated liquid handling—using multichannel pipettors—their needs soon outgrow this stage.
Flexibility is also a key design consideration for Agilent’s Bravo systems, especially for researchers designing qPCR experiments or immunoassays. “The Bravo has interchangeable pipetting heads, enabling the researcher to switch easily between 96 and 384 pipetting channels,” states Kathleen Shelton, senior director of marketing.
Cell-based assays come with their own set of challenges. One of these challenge, insists Dr. Buhlmann, is contamination: “The avoidance of any contamination—by mycoplasma, fungi, other cells or ingredients—is a major factor when handling cells during seeding or drug addition and incubation.” Eppendorf’s epMotion systems are easy to clean, can work with HEPA filters, and can be decontaminated with UV light. Pipetting tools can also be autoclaved.
“Hamilton’s liquid handlers use high-performance, air-displacement pipetting technology, similar to electronic handheld pipettes that are commonly used for sterile cell culture work,” says Kristina Klette, Ph.D., business unit manager, automated cell biology solutions, Hamilton Robotics.This feature eliminates the need for system liquids and self-contained liquid channels, thereby greatly lowering the risk for contamination of cultures or assay plates. Hamilton also offers containment solutions that integrate with liquid-handling systems to ensure a sterile workspace within the pipetting area.
Microarrays and NGS
Microarrays are still a popular choice for many laboratories seeking economical, high-throughput solutions for genotyping, gene expression, or epigenetic studies. For these laboratories, automating the multiple washing and hybridization steps of a typical microarray workflow can save time and money.
Flexibility versus Scalability
Researchers considering automation can be daunted by the variety of options available. However, all major manufacturers make it easy—and affordable—to start with a smaller system and expand as the laboratory’s needs grow.
For successful automation, software and hardware must play well together. “More and more, the main users of robotic workstations are biologists and chemists, rather than automation engineers,” explains Shelton. Selecting a system with a user interface geared toward scientists and specific to the assay being performed increases user satisfaction with the overall system.
Future developments in automated liquid handling will be guided by an increase in the demand for miniaturization and the ability to handle smaller volumes more efficiently, according to Jernstrom.
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