Concordia unveils Canada's first genome lab where 'robots do biology'

The university says the facility, known as the Genome Foundry, will help speed up experiments and increase their accuracy.

University says the facility, known as the Genome Foundry, will speed up experiments and increase accuracy

Smita Amarnath (left) and Nicholas Gold, the platform coordinators at the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology, say the Genome Foundry will help speed up their experiments. (Brian Lapuz/CBC)

"Robots doing biology, what could be cooler?" 

That's the message Nicholas Gold shared with Montrealers on Monday, as Concordia University unveiled its new robotics facility at the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

Gold is one of the platform coordinators at the centre, which is now using robots to carry out some of the more labour-intensive work in its synthetic biology research.

After undergoing tests since last fall, researchers say the new lab — known as the Genome Foundry — will not only help speed up experiments, but also greatly increase their accuracy. 

​'Painstaking work' completed in minutes

Gold said collecting thousands of samples and pipetting — moving measured samples of liquids through a lab tool known as a pipette — often amounts to "miserable, painstaking work" when done by hand.

For example, a technician may sometimes have to make about 3,000 transfers of a liquid via a pipette onto a surface area that's smaller than a dime, explained Gold's colleague, Smita Amarnath.

The repetitive task can often take days, but "if you ask the robot to do it for you, it takes less than 24 minutes," Amarnath said.

Leaving the work to lab technicians can also leave experiments vulnerable to human errors caused by fatigue, she said.​

Manually transferring liquids via a pipette can take days when you're working with thousands of samples. (Brian Lapuz/CBC)

Foundry has tremendous potential, researcher says

But the university is betting on the robots doing more than just repetitive, manual tasks.

Vincent Martin, the co-director of the synthetic biology centre, said the Genome Foundry will help researchers in their ongoing projects, such as engineering microbes to produce nylon, and examining genetic mutations that cause disease.

"The first step is to identify the problem," Martin said. "The foundry is very good at doing that."

The Genome Foundry’s robots don’t only transfer liquids, but they also manage petri dish colonies. (Brian Lapuz/CBC)

Genome foundries are a relatively recent phenomenon, and there are only about 15 around the world.

But the facilities are garnering tremendous attention, as international researchers are in Montreal this week for a two-day multi-disciplinary conference called Genome Project-Write at the Palais des congrès.

Concordia's Genome Foundry is relatively small in scale, home to about $4-5 million worth of equipment and infrastructure, Martin said.

About half of that money came in the form of a $2.5-million investment in 2015 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a non-profit organization that supports research at hospitals and universities.

Martin was recently at a conference in the U.K., which is home to a total of four genome foundries.

He said the facilities overseas not only do the work of decoding DNA, but they can also help startups develop prototypes and commercial products.

That's something Concordia researchers are pushing for locally, too, Martin said.

"That's something powerful for economic development," he said.​