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Robots reinvent the wheel by turning waste material into fuel

Copyright: Synthetic Biology Research Centre
News from: The University of Nottingham

A state-of-the-art robotics suite, worth over £1 million, will enable scientists at the Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) - Nottingham to engineer a number of bacterial strains and turbo charge the creation of valuable and novel chemicals and fuels from waste materials.

“It’s a fantastic addition to our research capability because the robots will allow us to not only automate many routine procedures but carry out 100s of experiments in parallel - something we can’t do currently,” Nigel Minton, Director of the SBRC-Nottingham.

With its modular build, the robotics platform is well suited to help individual researchers at different stages of their work especially when high numbers of samples need to be processed. For example, a researcher may need to test hundreds of primer pair combinations to select a desired PCR product; or they may need to screen hundreds of bacterial colonies in search for a desired DNA fragment or a gene with specific properties.

Copyright: Synthetic Biology Research Centre
The state-of-the-art robotics suite. Copyright: Synthetic Biology Research Centre - Nottingham

Currently, these types of experiments can take weeks or even months to accomplish. Use of the robotics platform can reduce the timeframe to less than a week. Additionally, with built in data acquisition, a reporting tool and a barcoding system, scientists can easily access and extract all of the necessary information on protocols or samples at any point in the future.

“This frees up our specialists and highly-skilled research teams to focus on more academically challenging aspects of our work using bacteria to make chemicals and fuels for us sustainably,” Minton explained.

A focus of the SBRC is engineering microbial chassis able to grow on single carbon waste gases, such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to produce useful platform chemicals that are currently derived from fossil fuels. Capitalising on native bacterial CRISPR systems, a major component of the bacterial adaptive immune system, brings about defined modifications to the genetic make-up of our process organisms.

The robotics platform enables automation of common pipelines in molecular biology including plasmid assembly, transformation of bacteria, colony picking and screening. SBRC Nottingham will work with other researchers in the university and in the wider-area to fully utilise the high-throughput capabilities of the equipment. The platforms contain liquid handling robots, thermocyclers, a colony picker and spreader, incubators, shakers and a plate reader, connected by a robotic arm.

The time taken to understand and subsequently exploit these systems for advanced engineering is considerably shortened through the use of the robots.


About the SBRC - Nottingham

The SBRC - Nottingham is a BBSRC/EPSRC joint funded research centre led by Professor Nigel Minton and employs approximately 120 researchers including academics, research and technical staff and PhD students. The main location for the SBRC is the university’s flagship CBS Building on the University Park campus, Nottingham. In the UK, six synthetic biology research centres have been funded by the government in Bristol, Cambridge/Norwich, Manchester, Edinburgh, Warwick and Nottingham. These centres are part of a £200 million investment in synthetic biology by the UK government.

About Beckman Coulter

Beckman Coulter was selected as the supplier of the robotic platform after a competitive tender process, and they are working closely with the SBRC during the installation of the equipment.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

Tags: frontier bioscience robotics research technology synthetic biology press release