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A View from Kristina Grifantini

Robot Scientist Designs Its Own Experiments

A robotic system can design and carry out experiments on its own.

  • April 2, 2009

Unlike other pieces of lab equipment, a robotic system created by scientists from Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge can design and perform new experiments on its own.

In a study called “The Automation of Science,” published in the latest issue of Science, the researchers asked the robot, named Adam, to find out which genes code for several enzymes of unknown origin (“orphan enzymes”) in baker’s yeast. Drawing on a database of yeast and other biological information, Adam came up with 20 hypotheses and designed several experiments to methodically test mutant strains against normal ones. The robot successfully identified–for the first time–the origins of several enzymes.

In the video, Adam carries out experiments to identify orphan enzymes in baker’s yeast. First, it takes out a yeast library plate from the freezer. Then, it stab-picks the strain it wants and inoculates a plate. Adam carries the plate to an incubator and lets the yeast grow for 24 hours. Finally, Adam shakes and reads the sample, getting growth measurements for three days.

“The knowledge that Adam produces is expressed in logic,” Ross King, a professor of computer science at Aberystwyth and first author on the paper, explained to me. This “makes the knowledge more reproducible and more useful.” King believes that intelligent lab assistants like Adam will be common in labs within a decade or so.

In addition to its control software, Adam consists of a huge array of equipment, including a freezer, incubators, plate readers, a plate washer, air filters, seven cameras, 20 sensors, and four computers.

King and his team are working on another robotic system called Eve. Eve will intelligently test drugs for malaria by hypothesizing how drug molecules of various shapes would perform. Adam will help Eve in its experiments by creating yeast cultures for testing.

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