Meet one of the Broad's laboratory workhorses

Leah Eisenstadt, December 7th, 2010 | Filed under

Behind an invisible curtain of light, robotic pods suspend drops of liquid in tiny plastic cones and deliver crucial chemicals to DNA destined for analysis. This automated dance takes place in the Biomek FX, a key piece of equipment in the Broad Institute's Genetic Analysis Platform (GAP) laboratory, where members of the Whole Genome Team prepare samples of genetic material for genotyping. The machine is an automatic pipettor, transferring liquids to samples during chemistry steps making work much easier for research technicians Mike DaSilva, Ryan McGinty, and Teni Minnetyan.

Also known as an automated liquid handler, the machine is the size of an oven. On the Biomek’s deck is an array of frames that hold laboratory plates. Above this, an arm equipped with the liquid dispensing pod hangs from a track, which allows the pod to move in three dimensions to reach plates throughout the deck. While manual pipettors allow a user to withdraw liquid from a single well or even eight wells at a time, the automated pods can perform this task on an entire plate — 96 wells — in one swift movement.

As DaSilva explains, the Biomek accomplishes two things: it ensures greater accuracy and efficiency over manual pipetting, allowing the team to keep up with the fast pace imposed on the platform by the institute’s genotyping needs. “We use it for almost every chemistry step,” he says. “It’s especially helpful in GAP, which is very high-throughput.” Technicians on the Whole Genome Team can process thousands of samples each week with the Biomek’s help.

The Biomek automated liquid handler makes quick work of pipetting tasks.
Video courtesy of Broad Communications.

“The Biomek is a really quick and easy way to process many plates,” says DaSilva. Not only is it an improvement over manual pipetting, he adds, but it is also a significant upgrade over other automated workstations used in the lab. One of the steps in DNA preparation is to resuspend precipitated DNA back into solution. The automated robots add a specific amount of this reagent to pellets of DNA. The step takes 45 seconds per plate on the Biomek, versus 15 minutes on another robot — a 20-fold increase in speed. For the four to nine plates the team processes daily, this amounts to 3 to 7 minutes on the Biomek, versus 1 to 2.25 hours on another robot.

“It’s not a very fancy machine with any bells or whistles, but it’s very reliable,” says DaSilva. “It’s kind of the workhorse of our chemistry process.” He adds that life in the lab would be rough without the Biomek FX. As Minnetyan explains, “We’d have to do a lot less production, or stay here twice as long.”