Jennifer Dennis Ph.D. Product Manager Bio-Rad Laboratories
Kim Petro Ph.D. Field Marketing Specialist Bio-Rad Laboratories

Five Questions to Guide the Process

With the increasing importance of generating large-scale data to drive new pharmaceutical and biotech discoveries, many scientists are feeling pressure to speed up data collection. One increasingly popular strategy that’s helping labs meet this challenge is implementing a robotic PCR workflow.

The advantages are many: automation accelerates data generation and frees up the lab’s time for analysis. An automated plate loader paired with automation-compatible real-time PCR instruments can enable a team to utilize its PCR machine 24/7. Furthermore, programing robots to load multiple real-time PCR systems simultaneously can speed up the whole process.

But while automating real-time PCR systems can significantly decrease total project time, only well-planned automation will truly eliminate bottlenecks, minimize hands-on time and remove delays.

Don’t take shortcuts when planning your PCR automation; do your homework and ask yourself these questions to ensure that you are setting up a process that works best for your lab.

1. What are my throughput goals?
Some plate handlers permit a single robot to independently operate two real-time PCR systems. The obvious advantage is the potential to double experimental throughput. One robot running two PCR systems 24/7, compared to a single real-time system running the same experiment during regular business hours only, can slash project time.

Don’t forget that some of these systems also come with multitasking software that allows two researchers to use a single plate handler for separate experiments.

2. Does my system need to be flexible?
Consider whether your lab needs to handle both 96-well and 384-well plates. Some robots can simultaneously service one real-time instrument with a 96-well block and another with a 384-well block. If you need this flexibility, take advantage of this feature; choose a robot with grippers that can reliably transfer both types of plates.

3. How much space do I really have?
Lab space is always at a premium. That extra space you have today can easily vanish after a few instrument purchases down the road. If your benchtop feels cramped or you anticipate it might be in the near future, look for a single robot that can service two real-time systems and use space more efficiently than two robots that perform those functions separately. You can further shrink the overall footprint of your automated system by choosing robots and real-time PCR instruments with relatively small footprints themselves.

4. Will the software be intuitive for all lab users?
Robotic software represents the gateway to achieving higher throughput and speed, but only if that software is easy to use. Some automated plate handlers require software-programing expertise to enable integration with real-time PCR instruments. Look for automated systems with software that works out of the box and which allows even novices to easily load gene target and thermal cycling information.

Again, think beyond the most basic operation. If the lab uses a laboratory information management system (LIMS) or frequently analyzes data outside the lab, look for software that easily integrates with LIMS or simplifies emailing data files.

5. Can I risk buying my components from separate vendors?
Working with a single vendor for automation workflow enables your lab to bring all questions (which inevitably arise after any new instrument purchase) to a single point of contact, whether those questions are rooted in the automation system or the real-time system. 

Furthermore, a single vendor can often confirm that components have been tested together for compatibility. The value that validation provides lies in both the elimination of variables from your data and the risk of interruption to your workflow. 

Integrating automation into pharmaceutical and biotech workflows can dramatically increase your throughput and decrease time to result, while both minimizing hands-on time and cutting costs. Follow these guidelines to help your lab maximize its investment and, ultimately, its contributions to science.


Caption: Automating real-time PCR systems can significantly decrease time to result for large experiments.

Jennifer Dennis, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is a product manager, and Kim Petro, Ph.D., is a field marketing specialist, gene expression division, at Bio-Rad Laboratories.

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