“At the biofoundry, PIXL has unlocked new capabilities that were previously unattainable. For instance, we can now perform high-throughput screening of microbial colonies with unprecedented speed and accuracy. This has enabled us to explore a wider range of experimental parameters and scale up our screening efforts significantly.”

Associate Professor Matthew Chang,
Director of the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology (SINERGY) and the NUS Synthetic Biology Centre for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI).

The rise of synthetic biology

Now is a pivotal time in the quest to engineer biology. Precision lab automation combined with powerful new AI technologies have potential to vastly accelerate the synthetic biology ‘design-build-test-learn cycle’. Taking these crucial next steps towards a sustainable bioeconomy now relies on synthetic biology innovators being able to de-risk and commercialise their products. Fundamentally this means scaling up experiments, not incrementally, but by orders of magnitude.

Singapore has ambitions to become a major player in the field of synthetic biology and has established the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology (SINERGY) in part to help overcome this issue. SINERGY is hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and headed up by synthetic biology visionary Professor Matthew Chang. A primary aim is to increase the cross-talk between synthetic biology researchers and engineers to promote access to cutting-edge technologies.

Associate Professor Matthew Chang. Image credit: National Research Foundation Singapore

Designing a next generation colony picker

SINERGY approached Singer Instruments in 2016 with a proposal to partner in the development of a next-generation colony picker. Crucially, it needed the efficiency and precision to decode complex biology, coupled with the integrability and usability to scale discoveries from the lab bench.

“When we began collaborating with Singer Instruments, our primary focus was on addressing key challenges hindering the process of engineering biology for industry applications, such as engineering microbes for chemical production,” says Professor Chang.

As a key member of SINERGY, SynCTI serves as the NUS research hub for
synthetic biology. SynCTI operates Singapore’s first biofoundry, housing a range of state-of-the-art robotic systems available to accelerate the R&D cycle and help synthetic biology startups get over the hurdle of reaching commercially viable scales. Singer Instruments is now among more than 20 industry partners directly collaborating with SynCTI to develop foundational technologies in synthetic biology.

“Our number one objective for the collaboration was to enhance efficiency and precision in our laboratory workflows, particularly through the establishment of a biofoundry in NUS,” explains Professor Chang.

“We were keen on automating manual processes to increase throughput and streamline our operations, which could support high throughput processing of samples and screening, allowing us to handle a large volume of experiments efficiently. Setting up an automated workflow was crucial for us to achieve our goals, as it would not only save time but also ensure consistency and reproducibility in our experiments.”

PIXL colony picker
Singer Instruments’ PIXL colony picking robot launched in 2018.

The power of co-design in lab automation

Our scientists and engineers worked closely with SynCTI researchers, establishing a continuous feedback loop that took PIXL from design to implementation in just two years .

Professor Chang says the collaboration has resulted in a colony picking solution uniquely positioned to meet market needs:

“Unlike traditional colony picking systems, PIXL’s advanced imaging technology allows for precise identification and selection of colonies based on various criteria such as size, shape, and colour. This level of precision minimises the risk of false positives or misidentification, ensuring the integrity of our experiments. Moreover, the unique pin-free colony picking system reduces the risk of contamination and saves us time in sterilising pins.”

It’s a model many larger lab automation companies struggle to replicate, says Harry Singer, chief executive of Singer Instruments:

“The lab automation market is changing. It’s more disruptive and there’s a faster technology churn. By entering into the spirit of collaboration, companies like ours are carving out specialist niches and driving innovation in line with market need. There aren’t many mainstream robotics companies that can pivot fast enough to do that.

“The reward for our customers is superior quality products and unique features that push performance boundaries. It’s exactly what is needed to grow the bioeconomy. And exactly what our technologies must achieve to delight our customers.”

Dr Harry Singer, Chief Executive of Singer Instruments

The future of lab technology

Traditional model organisms like yeast and E. coli remain powerhouses for understanding basic cellular processes. Yet the goal of designing synthetic organisms for specific industrial applications is increasingly driving researchers to branch out into non-conventional model organisms.

This is reflected in our customers, whose research now spans an increasingly diverse range of organisms and applications. From work to unpick the fundamentals of cellular biology through the Synthetic Yeast Genome (Sc2.0) and 1002 genomes projects. To resource-efficient bioprocesses developed from green algae and companies like SNIPR biome pioneering next generation antibiotics through gut-directed gene therapy.

To meet these unique challenges, Singer Instruments believes it’s vital that the future of lab technology is both flexible and reliable. It means labs can easily scale their experiments with the freedom to leverage the latest emerging technologies. But equally lab automation must be intuitive and easy-to-use. Empowering researchers to focus on the science ensures they aren’t held back by needing to develop specialist technical knowledge, simply to plan their workflows.

Singer Instruments has been serving the scientific community for 90 years. The science has changed, but the way we value our customers and faithfully channel this energy into developing unique products they can trust remains at the heart of our company. Our innovations are ambitiously setting new benchmarks for our industry. By measuring errors in parts per million we aim to bring forward a new era of precision microbiology. We couldn’t be more excited to be part of this evolving landscape and see where our future collaborations take us next!

SNIPR Biome is pioneering CRISPR-based microbial gene therapy with PIXL

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