Advanced robotics meets Synthetic Biology

17th January 2020

Advanced robotics meets Synthetic Biology: Evolution of Singer-PIXL, an Automated next-generation Colony Picker “Singer-PIXL went from design to automation within 2 years of collaboration with SynCTI-BioFoundry Singapore and it has found wide acceptance in the synthetic biology community for its high precision and efficiency”

Synthetic biology is the marriage between science and engineering to design and build biological parts and cutting-edge devices to help fuel bio-based economies. This motivation to accelerate innovation in synthetic biology between academia and industry resulted in the establishment of the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology (SINERGY), hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS). SINERGY helps to bring industry sectors on board and create a globally connected bio-based economy in Singapore. SINERGY is headed by a highly reputed leader in synthetic biology Professor Matthew Chang from the Department of Biochemistry at NUS, who is also the director of the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Translational Innovation (SynCTI) and WIL@NUS Corporate Laboratory.

A success story that emerged from SINERGY is the collaboration between Singer Instruments, which is a UK-based technology leader in automation and robotic instruments for the life science industry, and the BioFoundry Singapore (hosted by SynCTI, BioFoundry is Singapore’s first and only biofoundry) which houses state-of-the-art robotic systems. The mantra of BioFoundry is based on the concept of Design-Build-Test-Learn to evolve synthetic biological systems on a highly efficient, automated manufacturing platform to enhance high-throughput analysis. This led Singer Instruments and NUS-SynCTI to sign a research collaboration agreement in 2017 to conceive and develop a new advanced and automated high-throughput colony picker.

The amalgamation of industry and academic partners, where Singer Instruments used the motto “Listen, Collaborate and Integrate” with the Synthetic Biology’s concept of “Design-Build-Test-Learn”, led to their next-generation colony picker called Singer-PIXL. Singer’s scientists and engineers worked closely with SynCTI researchers to design and test Singer-PIXL, which evolved to become a high-precision colony picker. This agreement also meant housing Singer-PIXL at the BioFoundry Singapore for proximity to researchers, who could use the instruments and provide constant feedback to design and learning.

Screening of large libraries of microbial strains is a common workflow in synthetic biology. While screening is traditionally performed manually, handpicking thousands of colonies is not only impractical and tedious but also inefficient and costly. Despite the huge advantages of robotic colony picking systems, these platforms have not been widely adopted largely due to issues such as inconsistency, low throughput, and cross-contamination.

Singer-PIXL thus evolved by working through these shortcomings of current colony pickers available in the market. Singer-PIXL excels on 3 major aspects of design and automation.


a) User-friendly software interface: Singer-PIXL uses a touch-screen interface to guide users through the workflow to set up protocols for picking the right colonies in minutes. It is also incredibly simple to operate for end users, typically allowing them to master 90%
of software functionality within 10 mins of introduction. In short, 
hassle-free and easy.

Use of Pinpoint picking technology: This is a meticulously developed technology for reliability and sterility. Compared to existing models of colony pickers that use metal pins that must be sterilized every time and run the risk of cross-contamination, Singer-PIXL uses polymer-based PickupLine that is freshly cut to generate sterile ends as pinheads to transfer microbial colonies. After the colony picking is completed, the “tip” is snipped off and disposed of, hence preventing cross-contamination. Another advantage of the Pinpoint technology is that it can cope with any variation in agar height automatically to ensure that every single colony on the plate is picked and transferred without damaging agar plates. The motors are accurate to 50 microns and the picking profiles are adjustable to optimise for even the most tenacious colonies.

Singer-PIXL went from design to automation within 2 years of collaboration with SynCTI-BioFoundry Singapore. All the above-stated improvements in design and automation are based on the inputs and feedback from researchers at SynCTI. With this new design and capabilities, it has found wide acceptance in the synthetic biology community for its high precision and efficiency, thus expanding its market globally. From a researcher’s point of view, they were instrumental in the development of this new fully automated colony picker through constant learning-feedback which led to improvements in the prototype, and in return, benefited from having huge libraries of strains screened at low cost and less time. 


Conclusion

This collaboration between SynCTI-Singer PIXL has proved to be a good model and provides a blueprint for the development of future advanced robotics. We proudly believe At SynCTI that through initiatives like SINERGY, nurturing corporate-academic partnerships enhances the crosstalk between researchers and engineers, resulting in the development of cutting-edge technologies for automation and robotic screening platforms. Within SINERGY, a bevy of synergistic public-private partnerships between academia and industry is currently in the works, and we look forward to the sharing of other success stories in the very near future.

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