New forms of automation make it less expensive and easier to manage liquid handling and plate reading.

When it comes to moving liquids and plates, many researchers—from ones in big pharma to academic labs—seek more automation. “The trend is moving away from complicated systems,” says Isaac Meek, associate director of marketing at Caliper Life Science. “Instead, many researchers want more of a workstation approach.”

Seeking Simplifications
In the liquid-handling arena, smaller and simpler instruments take the lead. “Customers want something that can be added to as opposed to a large-scale system,” says Kiara Biagioni, product manager, automated liquid handling at Thermo Fisher Scientific. The Thermo Scientific Versette fits that description, and it also has a total volume range from single- to 384-channel, with pipetting volumes of 0.1–1,250 microliters.

Thermo Scientific Versette
The Thermo Scientific Versette automates pipetting
volumes of 0.1–1,250 microliters. (Source: Thermo Fisher Scientific)

To provide advanced automation of assays involving microplates, researchers need easy ways to control what goes in each well. The recent MultiFlo Microplate Dispenser from BioTek Instruments can dispense up to four reagents in parallel and accommodates 6–1,536 well plates. “It works for multiple users and multiple assays,” says Jason Greene, product manager at BioTek. “You buy only what you need today,” says Greene, “and then you can upgrade it at any point in the future when the lab’s needs change.” In addition, this bulk dispenser includes two pumping technologies: peristaltic and syringe. Greene sees a wide range of potential users of this dispenser, from companies running high-throughput screening down to benchtop users who need to dispense lots of reagents.

To make liquid handling easier, companies also keep improving the software interfaces. For example, Brian Polizzi, global product leader for automation and liquid handling, PerkinElmer, says that WinPREP 4.7—the software that runs PerkinElmer’s JANUS Automated Workstation includes “a new feature, the Application Assistant, to allow virtually anyone, with little to no training, to open pre-written protocols and perform the sample preparations they need, without having to learn even the programming basics of the software package.”

In some cases, liquid handling must be designed for very specific purposes, such as protein crystallization. For example, lipidic cubic phase (LCP) screening can find the best conditions for crystallizing troublesome proteins, especially membrane proteins, such as G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). The mosquito LCP liquid handler from TTP LabTech automates this process. According to Joby Jenkins, mosquito product manager at TTP LabTech, “The problem with the LCP crystallization technique is that LCP is highly viscous, thus difficult to manipulate. This in turn makes the automation and the miniaturization of this set-up very challenging.” He adds that the “mosquito LCP solves these problems.”

Sample Prep for Sequencing
As early drug discovery moves more toward target identification and validation, says Todd Christian, head of global marketing for Agilent Automated Solutions, researchers seek more automation of sample preparation for next-generation sequencing. “Sample preparation is an upfront bottleneck for sequencing,” he says.

PerkinElmer JANUS Application Assistant
The JANUS Application Assistant greatly simplifies automation control. (Source: PerkinElmer)

The Agilent SureSelect XT Target Enrichment System, says Christian, “provides automated library preparation, as well as target enrichment and capture.” He adds that this technology “significantly reduces the time required to do sample preparation, and it adds more consistency in the data because all of the samples are processed identically.” Agilent is also working on applying similar advances in protein research.

To get more from sequencing, instrument makers also want to enhance sample preparation. For instance, Illumina will comarket Caliper’s LabChip GX, which can be used to analyze DNA or RNA before sequencing. For example, the GX can determine the size, concentration, and integrity of the samples.

Some companies also provide protocols to run various next-generation sequencers. For example, Jesse Cassidy, product manager, automation and liquid handling at Eppendorf North America says that his company offers pre-optimized protocols for Illumina and SOLiD sequencers. This software takes the sample from raw processing steps through washes and so on. “The sample processing is nearly fully automated and significantly reduces setup times,” Cassidy says. “Then, the sample goes to next-generation sequencing.”

Tecan TouchTools Suite
The TouchTools Suite gives a user touch-screen control of pipetting. (Source: Tecan)

Plate-Reading Options
As plates pass through a reader, data are measured with a monochromator- or filter-based system. The Thermo Scientific Varioskan Flash is a monochromator-based multimode reader. In addition, says Hanna Grano-Fabritius, market and product line manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Varioskan Flash runs self-diagnostics. “The instrument performance is checked on start-up and the plate is always checked before a read,” she says. “Plus, this instrument includes an automatic gain setting that gives you the widest dynamic range.” This plate reader’s software also integrates easily with robotic automation.

In addition to automation, researchers want speed from plate readers. For example, the DynaPro Plate Reader from Wyatt Technology can handle 96-, 384-, or 1,536-well plates. “It can provide a single measurement in a few seconds to a minute,” says Sigrid Kuebler, PhD, senior applications scientist at Wyatt Technology. “It can even run through a 384-well plate in an hour.” Given this throughput, Kuebler says that the DynaPro “can extend the range of experiments to ones that you probably wouldn’t have done, like checking different formulations.” She adds, “It’s easy to do repeat measurements.”

In some cases, today’s researchers want more choices in plate handlers, because different labs need different levels of power. So Polizzi notes that PerkinElmer’s new plate::handler SX Workstations “complement our cell::explorer and plate::explorer platforms, by delivering a significantly scaled down, affordable level of automation suitable for basic research and low throughput applications.”

Overall, biologists seek assays that simulate a natural environment, such as label-free detection. According Richard Eglen, PhD, president, bio-discovery, PerkinElmer, “The use of label-free detection allows the researcher to measure biochemical and cellular events without introduction of labels and therefore minimize perturbations in the activity to be measured.” He adds that label-free detection “is now available for the first time in a bench top reader, with the EnSpire Multimode Plate Reader label-free technology.”

TTP mosquito LCP liquid handler
The mosquito LCP liquid handler automates protein crystallization with lipidic cubic phase (LCP) screening. (Source: TTP LabTech)

Keeping Track
With increasing automation, scientists need advanced tracking technology. “It’s very important that mechanisms to monitor automated processes ensure that the results are true and fully tractable for legislative purposes,” says Wendy Lauber, director of technical product management at Tecan.

In addition, she adds that tools must offer more options while staying simple. “Our TouchTools Suite, for example, provides full on-board control with touch-screen interfaces,” Lauber says. “This allows easy control of the pipetting platform.”

Tecan is also teaming up with Covaris to integrate adaptive focused acoustics (AFA) to the Tecan’s Freedom EVO liquid-handling platform. Lauber says, “AFA is gaining widespread acceptance in the compound-management community for rapid thawing, mixing and dissolution of samples, as well as for DNA sharing in the exciting area of next generation sequencing.”

Some future software must also comply with 21 CFR part 11. According to Cassidy, Eppendorf’s ep-Blue will be compliant early in 2011. “This is our native automation software in all of our systems,” Cassidy says.

Tomorrow’s automation will include even more capabilities. “The biggest advance ahead will come from flexibility, adaptability,” says Christian. “Automation evolved out of doing a single process over and over, but the market is shifting and driving everyone to be more flexible and adaptable because the science is changing more rapidly.”