Automation in a Scientist's Perspective

At Artficial, we bring together the fundamentals of automation, life sciences, and UX onto one, easy-to-use platform. Representing the “life sciences” part of our team is our COO Yvonne Linney Ph.D., who has more than 30 years’ experience in life sciences. In this blog, you can learn more about how automation has changed throughout her career.

My introduction to lab automation

I always wanted to be a life science researcher so doing a Ph.D. in Genetics after receiving my BS in Microbiology was a natural path. During my Ph.D., everything in the lab was manual. We would spend hours pipetting microliters of liquids into small tubes with a single channel pipette. We’d have competitions amongst the lab members to see how many plasmid preps we could do before coffee break - I think the record was 72. Once we isolated the DNA in the morning, we would spend the afternoon pouring gels and loading samples to perform gel electrophoresis. Lab work took a lot of time, leaving much room for improvement so naturally, progress was slow.

A few months before completing my Ph.D., I had my first experience with automation when a sales specialist came to demo a fancy automated electrophoresis system, the PhastSystem. This new state-of-the-art instrument allowed you to run two small gels and stain them, all within the instrument - it was so revolutionary to the space. Disillusioned with bench work and eager to advance technology, I joined the company after graduation and began my career helping scientists advance their research by providing tools that optimize their experiments.

GEMINI LAB: Pharmacia Phastsystem Development, separation control unit

Several years later, I saw the beginning of laboratory automation at a much grander scale. I was fortunate enough to be one of the major suppliers in the Human Genome Project, where I collaborated with centers like the Whitehead Institute in Boston (the predecessor of The Broad Institute). Starting out, these genome centers were built like a factory environment filled with sequencing equipment and shifts of technicians.

2021 Whitehead Institute: Whitehead Institute and the Human Genome Project

Over time, they added rooms full of liquid handlers carrying out sample preparation. To further improve their operations, they hired automation specialists from other industries to build bespoke systems that increased sample throughput. In fact, the automation team at one of the private efforts, Incyte Genetics, built a very advanced fully automated system, complete with robotic arms, which I loved to watch for hours. This team went on to form the revolutionary laboratory automation company Velocity 11, which Agilent acquired in 2007.

It’s amazing to look back at this pioneering project where they knew new technologies were critical to meet their ambitious timelines, but they had no idea what those advances would be.

Introducing the benchtop liquid handler

During this time, drug discovery was all about building and screening massive chemical libraries to identify and optimize these small chemical entities for new therapeutics. Every pharmaceutical company had a massive library of compounds and invested vast amounts in automation to screen these libraries. But these screening laboratories were generally hidden away in the basement and run by experts while the general scientists were oblivious to the benefits of lab automation and continued to work at the bench using the same tools as I’d used a decade before. In the early 2000s, after joining Caliper Life Science, one of the major suppliers of these automated screening systems, we saw the opportunity to create a general-purpose ‘benchtop’ liquid handler, as did other companies. But they were not easy for the general lab scientist to use so were confined to specialists specifically hired to run these instruments.

So when Velocity 11 (remember, those innovative engineers from Incyte) launched their flagship product, the Bravo, in 2005, bench scientists were excited. They had a routine benchtop liquid handler that was easy to use. A few years later, Velocity 11 was acquired by Agilent and as General Manager for Life Science Solutions at Agilent, the Bravo became one of my products. Seeing the love bench scientists had for their little workhorse, I saw the opportunity to use the Bravo to increase sample preparation throughput, a major bottleneck in Next Generation Sequencing.

Grizzly Analytical: Agilent Velocity 11 Bravo Liquid Handler

Automation becomes the norm

Looking back, laboratory automation was only found in fields with very specific needs, but, today, automation, especially liquid handling, has advanced so far that it is more commonplace and seen as critical for throughput and reproducibility in revolutionary areas like synthetic biology and gene editing using CRISPR. Now, synthetic biology companies like Gingko Bioworks are building massive, industrial-scale facilities and gene editing companies are adopting automation earlier to develop therapeutics. Throughout labs, we are seeing efficiencies where scientists can focus on science rather than spending hours at the bench.

New York Times (October 8, 2021): Biology Starts to Get a Technological Makeover

While automation has become more commonplace, challenges remain. The need for simplifying laboratory automation is obvious, integration between different devices is challenging and learning multiple instrument interfaces is frustrating. To address these challenges, Artificial focuses on usability and remote monitoring to ensure any scientist can utilize the tools they have in their lab, maximize their efficiency, and maintain continuity should another event like COVID-19 threaten to disrupt work. It has been exciting to see how the industry has changed over my career and to be part of this laboratory revolution where I love seeing our customers' excitement as they learn more about Artificial and how it can simplify their day-to-day laboratory operations.