Image of bacteria colony and robotic hand for article on colony picking robots.
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Published On: July 18th, 2023Categories: Articles, Colony Picking
Those who watch or read the news may be familiar with how many decades it took for the first genome sequencing projects to come to fruition fully. Tens of thousands of individual fragments were used in these projects, but these fragments had to undergo processes before they became usable. Each fragment had to be cloned, picked from a library, and prepared.

While the handpicking of colonies is still widely used today in some applications, laboratory automation has come into being since the early 1990s. Because of the expanse of genome sequencing projects, it would be next-to-impossible for technicians to pick all these colonies by hand. These early challenges in colony picking led to the development of laboratory automation, primarily at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where the human genome was first studied.

Read on to learn more about automation in laboratories, how colony-picking robots were developed, and what the future holds for laboratory automation.

How Do Automated Colony Pickers Work?

The first automated colony-picking designs in the 1990s were large and often custom-built for the application, and as of 2023, there is now artificial intelligence in colony-picking robots. Colony picking was the first process laboratory automation targeted because the genome project was so massive.

In general terms, colony pickers work by using illumination under plates to capture images. A computer then processes those images to locate the colonies. A robotic arm pins and transfers the bacteria to a growth medium for its application, and the robotic pin is sterilized and used again.

What Applications Use Colony Picking?

Colony picking first came about with human genome projects, as the tasks were too large to process manually. Today, colony picking is used in many different upstream and downstream applications. Examples of upstream workflows include genome editing, sampling, cloning, and colony plating, while downstream workflows include enzymatic assays, nucleic-acid purification, PCR, protein purification, fermentation, and mass spectrometry. Colony picking can be a vital part of many complex workflows, as seen above. Some processes that use picking include

  • Transferring plant embryos
  • Microbial screening
    • Identifying new strains
    • Discovering new natural molecules
    • Developing immunotherapies for cancer
  • Molecular cloning
    • Developing gene therapies
  • Sorting zebrafish eggs
  • Separating plant seeds
  • Genetic engineering
    • Genome editing

When it comes to laboratory automation, colony pickers can do more than pick colonies, also. They can rearray clones from several plates into a single one, replicate a plate, and cherry-pick clones. Many machines also come with barcode readers and data-tracking software, which aids in different applications and ensures the provenance of the cultures.

Colony Picker Features

Early colony pickers were large, costly machines that were initially only affordable to large laboratories or institutions. Today, the design is much more compact and features more robust. Expect a modern colony picker to have features and tools, such as

  • Plating and spreading. Laboratory automation lets you plate and streak 96 samples in ~30 minutes.
  • Agar sensing. An agar height sensor detects differences in height.
  • Scalable automation options. Many machines are robot-compatible and can be custom built to manage most types of applications.
  • Multiple imaging modes. Colony picking is made simpler with the help of fluorescence, color, or white light.
  • Organism-specific pins. These special pins increase E. coli, phage, and yeast efficiency, while plate-specific pins ensure the even distribution of liquid culture into sugar.

There may also be other features, such as adaptable gridding, hit-picking abilities, and plate replication.

Trends in Colony Picking

Laboratory automation technology is constantly evolving and advancing. Today’s colony pickers with robotic platforms can now automate the entire workflow, which is a huge advantage over standalone colony pickers. While in 2019, the most advanced colony pickers could pick up to 1,000 colonies per hour, as of 2023, the highest throughput models can pick more than 2,000 per hour. Using artificial intelligence as part of colony picking is always a consideration, as is adding modules for spiral bacteria plating.

According to MarketWatch, the 2023 automated colony-picking system market is expected to see “significant growth, with Hudson Robotics noted as one of the key players in the market.

Wondering how to complete your lab and grow with laboratory automation and colony-picking robots? Contact Hudson Robotics today to speak with a representative and receive a quote.