18 July 2012
Written by Colin Barker
I’m an engineer at the Sanger Institute and I’m often asked to work with scientists to find new ways to make research techniques faster, more efficient and, sometimes, a whole lot less boring.
About two years ago, Bill Skarnes (who leads the stem cell team) asked me to build a robot to help with the colony picking process. It is a dull and monotonous task that is also labour intensive and highly repetitive – an ideal process to be given to a robot. The team works with colonies of stem cells that are grown for a few days and then need to be identified, isolated and separated in the space of just 24-48 hours. This need to separate out the colonies is a major bottleneck in the research process.
So that I could create a robot that will mimic the way the researchers work in the most appropriate fashion, I sat in the laboratory clean rooms observing the researchers in action. I rapidly realised that this was a highly skilled and delicate operation and that a robot would never be able to fully replace the researchers’ expertise. Knowing which colonies to pick, and which to leave, is a skill that is best left to the scientists.
However, I knew that if I could automate the rest of the process I could help bring benefit in several ways. My robot would relieve RSI caused by repeated pipetting to aspirate and separate colonies, remove the eye strain of peering down a microscope, and save valuable time by freeing researchers to do other, more creative, tasks. The challenge was set.
I worked closely with Wendy Bushell from the ES Cell Mutagenesis team to design ‘The Colinator’ – a robot that accurately picks 96 colonies in under 14 minutes, to an accuracy of less than the width of a human hair. It uses an image detection system to highlight colonies on screen for the researcher to choose. Once the best colonies have been chosen, the Colinator gently slices, slides and lifts each colony away from the plate using a syringe needle with an accuracy and reliability of close to 100 per cent. The picked colony is then dispensed into a well, and the needle is washed clean before returning to pick another one. Not only does the robot enable researchers to continue with other tasks, but the gentle picking process keeps the colonies intact and increases the cells’ ability to grow and thrive.
The Colinator will soon be working full time in the Sanger Institute laboratories, but the story doesn’t end there. We are now working with a commercial partner to turn the Colinator into a line of machines that can be used in labs around the world to free researchers from monotonous colony picking tasks. Watch this space, as they say.
Colin Barker is an engineer at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.