June 1, 2012 at 2:28 PM ET
When you think of robots in agriculture, you likely think of automatic threshers, fruit picking machines and corn huskers. But a recent addition at an agricultural research center is doing fiddly lab work all day long -- at 100 times the rate of a full-time researcher.
There is much in science that requires a human touch: designing experiments, collecting field samples, and assessing the health of creatures in a study, for instance. But there are also many tedious portions, like running the same experiment on 50 different dishes of bacteria, and of course the inevitable sterilizing of lab equipment.
These tasks, more manual than intellectual labor (though no less critical to the end product), are beginning to be handed off to more capable, less error-prone hands. Hands that will work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no less.
What the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is looking into is how certain plants, like wheat and rice, activate different genes encoded into their DNA. If they can learn how a plant, say, responds to cold weather by flowering early, they can use that information to help produce an improved plant with a shorter growth period. Dr. Todd Mockler's lab is working on improving biofuel plants like switchgrass, which may be critical to green energy in coming decades.
The experiment being performed is one that has a long history in biology, but has always been performed manually. It's called Yeast 1 hybridizing, and it consists of essentially copying and pasting short strands of plant DNA into yeast's well-known genetic code, and letting the yeast multiply. They can then test the effects of certain molecules on just those bits of DNA.
It's a well-known technique, but not without its weaknesses. The main problem is that if you have a lot of material to check, you're looking at thousands upon thousands of experiments as you exhaust every possible combination of DNA snippet and activating molecule. This means months of mind-numbing work as lab technicians pipette substances from one test tube to another. On the other hand, as Dr. Mockler told me, it's very valuable when you get results, because they're not simulated; it's real DNA reacting as it would in the wild.
A perfect match for a tireless machine, then. A human researcher working 40 hours a week can perform the monotonous testing at a rate of about 2000 per week. But in April, they installed a robot arm and a number of other automated machines, which work together to perform 200,000 such tests weekly. Dr. Mockler said he hoped to bring about desired changes in plants, such as improved yield per plant or better resistance to drought, within a few years rather than a decade or two.
But although the robot is powerful and never sleeps, it's still just a robot. Even this highly sophisticated machine can only do what it's told. Dr. Mockler explains:
There’s always going to be a place for the tinkering scientist inventing something new, doing something on a small scale to develop the technology to the point where you can automate it. But the automation will definitely lead to faster discoveries.
In other words, it'll be a long time before our robots are doing the brain work, not just the tedious parts after we've all gone to bed. In the meantime, Lewis and Clark (as the robot and its smaller helper bot have been named) will free up hands and brains to do more valuable human-type work.
Watch a video of the robot in action below. The Donald Danforth Plant center has more information about their research and the robots here at their infographics page, and posts frequent updates to its Facebook page.
And for those uneasy about the prospect of this type of high-speed modification, it's worth noting that what the lab is doing isn't exactly modifying the plant, but learning how it works through careful experimentation and then selecting for certain traits. Gregor Mendel, grandfather of modern genetic science, did the same thing -- albeit at a slightly slower pace.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.