One of the most common tools in life science research and testing facilities is the microplate, which includes a set number of wells arranged in a rectangular pattern. The microplate, which can also be called a microtiter plate or a microwell plate, allows for a large number of samples to be evaluated at the same time, significantly decreasing the amount of time required for diagnostic testing, research studies, cell cultures, and other applications. Each well is designed to hold a specific amount of a fluid sample, and the array pattern allows for multiple wells to be filled concurrently.
Birth of the Microplate
The concept of the microplate was pioneered by Dr. Gyula Takátsy of Hungary in 1951, who was dealing with a shortage of medical supplies during an influenza outbreak. Dr. Takátsy created a microplate by machining wells into a block of Lucite plastic. The wells in Dr. Takátsy’s microplate were filled using calibrated spiral wire loops. A molded plastic version of the microplate, created by inventor John Liner, was in use by the late 1950’s in the United States.
By the 1960’s, microplates were filled by hand using single pipettes to dispense samples into the wells. Pipettes evolved to provide increased accuracy and the ability to fill all of the wells in a microplate column at once, dramatically increasing the speed and efficiency of processes that used microplates. However, all of these processes were still completely manual, and relied on the efficiency and accuracy of the user.
Transition from Manual to Automated Handling
The largest innovations in microplate handling came about when researchers and manufacturers desired to move from manual handling to automated systems. As populations grew and aged, there was a need to increase the throughput of evaluation processes.
In the 1990’s, at least 15 different companies were manufacturing microplates in a variety of sizes. One of the key factors that allowed automation to move forward was the development of standards in microplate manufacturing. The Society for Biomolecular Sciences did just this starting in 1996, and by 2003 official standards were approved by the American National Standards Institute. The standard dictates specific dimensions of microplates and their wells, allowing for different automation systems to process microplates from different manufacturers.
Laboratory robotic equipment came onto the scene in the 1980’s when Zymark Corporation was formed specifically to create robotic systems for scientists and researchers. Automation for life science laboratories was pioneered by Dr. Rod Markin in the early 1990’s. Dr. Markin focused on the integration of off the shelf testing components tied together with automation software to perform laboratory tasks. In the beginning, automated microplate handling was only used by large organizations that could afford the capital expense and had the volume to result in a return on investment.
Automation Now Standard for Life Science Research
Today, microplate automation has evolved into a complex system of storage, movement, manipulation, and evaluation components, software control systems, and operational rules. However, the evolution of the components and the processes have made automated microplate handling systems accessible to organizations of all sizes, allowing them to experience the increased efficiency and throughput that automation provides.
 Takatsy G. “Uj modszer sorozatos higitasok gyors es pontos elvegzesere (A rapid and accurate method for serial dilutions)” Kiserl. Orvostud. 5:393-7, 1950.
TraceyBoone “Total Laboratory Automation – Overview and Lessons Learned”