Tag Archives: automated platforms

“Perfecting the Pick-up Line”


In a recent post a month or two ago I noted that the current, so called “Total Laboratory Automation” systems still had a few gaps in them (Click here for the article), one of them being the ability to automatically pick colonies off a plate and inoculate MALDITOF plates and susceptibility broths.

It therefore came as somewhat of a surprise to me as I wandered around the Trade Exhibition at the ECCMID in Copenhagen. The sign “Automated Colony Picking” caught my eye..

And sure enough, there it was, a robotic system that could automatically pick a digitally marked colony, and inoculate a Maldi plate and a susceptibility broth. The company was called “Sci-Robotics”, and the hardware called “Pickolo”. It was being trialled at a laboratory in Italy, apparently with good success, even for small or mucoid colonies. 

The big corporates involved in bacteriology automation (you know who they are…) were showing a considerable degree of interest in the hardware!

Somehow I don’t think it will be very long before automated colony pickers are added to the big laboratory automation platforms.

In fact I don’t think it will be long (less than 10 years) before the manual work that the microbiology scientists will be performing will be restricted to the weird, the complex, and the bits and pieces which don’t easily automate.

….and that is exactly the way it should be.


Click here for a You-tube video on the automated colony picker as described above.

“The dogma of day 1 and day 2”

Readers who work in a clinical microbiology lab will be familiar with day 1 and day 2 reading. That is the way it has always been. Regardless of when the specimen was put up, the plates are incubated overnight and then read on day 1, re-incubated and then read again the next day, on day 2. This old-fashioned system is so non-standardised, it is actually a wonder that we still get away with it with regards to accreditation.

However not to worry. Smart incubators are becoming increasingly prevalent (e.g. WASP, Kiestra).These systems know when each plate enters the incubator, and thus allows plates to be incubated for a specific pre-programmed time, before automatic imaging occurs, and the scientist is notified that they are ready to be read.

As these automated systems become increasingly common, we need to move away from the day 1, day 2 dogma. Most plates will only need incubated for somewhere between 12 and 18 hrs before bacterial growth is visible.

Instead we should be talking about 1st reading and 2nd reading, or something similar. We should simply stop referring to plate reads as day 1 and day 2…..

The other area that Day 1, day 2 dogma is seen is with regards to enrichment broths. Enrichment broths such as MRSA/Gp B broths tend to get incubated for a day before being subbed onto plates. Of course 1 day/24 hrs is a completely arbitrary figure. With smart incubators and 24 hr rosters we need to start validating shorter enrichment periods, in order to decrease turnaround times.

Continuous put-up, continuous reading, continuous reporting. That should be the vision of all clinical microbiology laboratories.


“The chicken and the egg”

I am currently at the ECCMID conference in Copenhagen. So far, and in my humble opinion it has been better than last year’s ECCMID in Barcelona; better conference facilities, more seating, nicer food, better use of Information Technology etc.. Even though the conference is only in its second day it has already provoked several ideas and concepts for me to work on when I get back to New Zealand.

One continuing issue I have though is the difficulty in differentiating between the sessions sponsored by industry and the independent sessions. It is an important distinction to make, for obvious reasons.

During a couple of the industry sponsored sessions, both involving the promotion of new automated platforms, I have heard the following quote: “The shortage of skilled scientists has prompted the need for automation”or something to that effect.

Hmmm.., I am not buying that one.

Automation in the world of microbiology has several benefits (see this article for more), relating mainly to standardisation of processes and reduction of errors. You can also be sure that automation is cost effective compared to the traditional methods, otherwise it would not happen.

These, along with the technological advances that have made automation feasible, are the principle drivers in this direction.

The lack of skilled staff I suspect is not one of the main drivers, but is however still used as an “excuse” for automation, particularly by the companies manufacturing and promoting these systems. 

What automation certainly does do is reduce the number of skilled staff required to process the samples. It also changes the skill sets needed by both incumbent and trainee scientists. 

So for me, in this conundrum, the automation comes first, and the effects on scientists are the consequence, not the other way round…..