The future scientist, a desk job?

I’m always fascinated by the new innovations that grace the shores of the research tools industry.

Machines are getting smarter, sensitivities and specificities are increasing, efficiencies are being improved, tasks are becoming unified, less labour intensive and being designed to suit our time demanding and digital lives.

It won’t be to far off when a scientist becomes a desk job (some would argue it’s pretty much there given the amount of time that is dedicated to grant writing these days). They will be able to perform all their experiments using robotics and integrated machinery from the comfort of their own office desktop PC.

A couple examples I wanted to share that illustrate this innovation are:

1: Invitrogen iBlot and BenchPro

These two items are targeted at reducing the time and effort it takes to undertake a Western Blot. The iBlot is able to transfer proteins from a separating electrophoresis gel on to a membrane for blotting purposes. This takes 7 MINUTES!!. An average transfer for me takes 1 HOUR!. The BenchPro addresses the next step in the Western Blot, the application of antibodies, blocking solutions and washes. This can be a lengthy process, one which you tirelessly wait around waiting for probing to occur so you can wash it and then do it all over again. This machine automates this > 2hour process.

Next incremental innovation? Combined iBlot and BenchPro into 1 unit.



2 Biomerieux. These guys are in the business of full microbiological lab automation. One particular innovation I have come across is their PREVI™ Isola. This is a large scale automated agar plate streaking machine.


3: Remote Desktop.  While this one is not specifically for the science research industry it does have a very interesting application for it. It allows a scientist to leave the lab with an experiment running say a chromatography experiment, real time PCR, spectroscopy experiment or in fact any machine that is connected to an intranet connected PC. The scientist can then dial into the PC to access data, change parameters, fix the machine or just turn it off after the run. You can even do it on your smart phone these days!

4: Microfluidics. This technology utilises micro scale pumps, tubes, valves or sensors like flowmeters and viscometers capable of  handling and analysing  extremely small fluid volumes. Together these form a ‘Lab on a Chip’ capable of performing a micro scale experiment. It converts a labour intensive multi step experiment into an automated one that uses minimal sample (hence they are referred to as Total Analysis Systems sometimes).



Some examples include:

(a) The ‘Lung on a Chip’ device ‘reconstitutes the critical functional alveolar-capillary interface of the human lung’. This is used to test the effects of environmental toxins, absorption of aerosolized therapeutics, and the safety and efficacy of new drugs.  [REF]

(b) PCR on a Chip [REF]

Some chips are now commercial and are matched with reader machines [REF].


5: Robotic Liquid Handling Systems

Basic lab robotics have been around for ages. But each year they get more advanced and user friendly. The most common sort are the liquid handling systems. But companies are also producing task specific robots e.g. for running entire DNA extractions or ELISAs. We also aren’t that far off seeing these systems being unified e.g. liquid handling and PCR run, within the same robotic process.



2 responses to “The future scientist, a desk job?

  1. Agree Graeme. Also, nowadays you can contract out labs to do experiments for you. There are several companies that will express your protein of interest and do functional assays for you. And if you can afford it, it is certainly a good investment. I spent most of my PhD learning techniques. If I had been able to contract out the experiments, I would have saved a lot of time and pain 🙂 Perhaps one problem with that is missing serendipity discoveries by not seeing the experiments first hand.

  2. Nice article, Graeme. I’d like to add on to Pablo’s comment about not actually doing the experiments oneself. This is, that besides missing out on serendipitous discoveries, we’d likely begin to lose familiarity with the concepts behind these assays. This is (barely) fine so long as it appears nothing has gone wrong and the data make sense or are as expected. But trouble-shooting would be completely ineffective, if not impossible, should unexpected or inexplicable data appear.

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