December 17, 2021 | News & Notices Utility of World's first Robot-compatible Autonomous Laboratory System with LC and LC-MS Units Verified with Kobe University
Shimadzu Corporation and Kobe University have started verifying the utility of a prototype autonomous laboratory system based on using robotic, digital, AI, and other technologies. The intention is to develop an autonomous laboratory system that is actually used in society, such as for developing biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, or new materials.
Shimadzu Corporation has been jointly researching “smart cells” (biological cells artificially modified using advanced technology in synthetic biology) with Kobe University (with Prof. Tomohisa Hasunuma’ group at the Engineering Biology Research Center) for three years since 2018. If smart cells successfully mass produce substances that were previously difficult to do, it could trigger a technological revolution in a variety of areas, such as pharmaceuticals, foods, new materials, environmental remediation or alternative materials for petrochemical products. However, the experimental design process involved in developing new smart cells and preparing a path to mass production is extremely complex. Consequently, it is taking a long time to optimize production processes.
In order to build the autonomous laboratory system, Shimadzu Corporation and Kobe University have been partnering to jointly verify efficiency improvements based on the DBTL cycle since June 2021, including improvements to designing metabolites/genes (D: design), building hosts (B: build), evaluating productivity and metabolomics (T: test), and analyzing experimental results (L: learn). Specifically, the joint research topics are “improving the enzymatic functions causing bottlenecks in metabolic pathways for producing substances with enhanced functional properties” and “automatically optimizing parameters in the smart cell cultivation.” Based on the data acquired with analytical instruments, AI is used to prepare the following experimental conditions for building strains that enable more efficient and rapid production and optimizing cultivation parameters. The autonomous laboratory system was installed inside the biofoundry facility at the Kobe University Integrated Research Center (Port Island, Kobe), where verification tests will be performed to prepare the system for actual use in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, new material development, and other fields.
In November, Shimadzu Corporation invested in and signed a corresponding partnership agreement with Bacchus Bio innovation Co., Ltd., a biotech startup company spun off from Kobe University. In the future, Shimadzu will engage in research and development for promoting smart cells in collaboration with Kobe University and Bacchus Bio innovation Co., Ltd.
Photo: Overview of Prototype Autonomous Lab System
Photo: Robot-compatible LC Unit in Autonomous Lab System
Features of Autonomous Lab System Prototype Installed at Kobe University
1．World’s First Robot-Compatible Liquid Chromatograph
Shimadzu has already developed a liquid chromatograph (LC) unit equipped with a mechanism that enables using a scalar robot (horizontal multi-jointed robot) for transferring sample plates. That means the previously manual process of placing and replacing plates can be automated by introducing a laboratory robot. It can even move the plates smoothly to prevent increasing temperatures inside the LC unit.
2．Using Visual Programming for Simple Experimental Protocol Design
The dedicated process management app shows the entire experiment process flow visually and uses simple and intuitive operations to specify process steps via the cloud. There is no need to learn a complicated programming language.
3．Integrated Management of Entire Process, from Experiment Proposal to Results Management
The dedicated app manages information about each sample, such as the containers, instruments, reagents, and analytical techniques used, and manages it together with experimental results in a database to ensure high traceability. All data related to an experiment can be analyzed and viewed using the app.
4．New Experimental Conditions are Proposed by AI Based on Previous Experimental Results
Autonomous Lab is an automatic experimenting system that works in combination with AI to propose conditions for the next experiment based on previous experimental results, using Bayesian optimization (machine learning technique for predicting unknown functions) and other techniques. Consequently, research can be accomplished more efficiently, without relying on researcher intuition or experience.
Concept of Autonomous Lab System
Shimadzu’s vision for future laboratories involves using robotics and AI to offer a platform that can autonomously make scientific discoveries. Development of the Autonomous Lab system is being led by the Technology Research Laboratory at Shimadzu. The system is operated by the researcher first entering a protocol (experiment procedure) via a cloud service. Then a robot executes the experiment and sends the experiment results back to the researcher. The system is intended for laboratories of the future that conduct experiments autonomously, such as by using AI to support analysis with data analysis or by specifying experiment plans automatically.
CG Illustration of Autonomous Lab System