The researchers programmed Adam to prepare samples of frozen yeast strains; incubate them to encourage growth (which Adam monitored using an optical sensor); place the samples in a centrifuge to separate out the yeast; mix the yeast with certain nutrients and incubate it again; and then monitor the plates over time. Adam did this by using robotic arms to pass the samples from work space to work space within an automated lab the size of a small room. Although Adam does require some setup initially, "there's no real intellectual input from humans," once it gets started, King says.
The Adam project was financed by the government of Wales, along with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in England, a funding agency for life sciences research. (The lab cost $1 million to build, which does not include the costs to keep it running.) Adam helps take a lot of the grunt work out of lab experiments, says BBSRC's director of research Janet Allen, an experimental biologist, which allows scientists to spend more time analyzing the results of their research. BBSRC has been funding the project since 1999, having contributed more than $1.3 million thus far. "When robots first came in to the lab, people were excited about creating enormous data sets, but you also have to be able to work with all of that data," she says. "Adam is a way to combine experimental science (in the lab) with computational science" that crunches numbers and turns raw data into scientific knowledge.
King and his colleagues designed Adam to perform basic biology but they are hoping that their next automated lab, Eve, will help scientist search for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics. Eve, which King expects will be up and running by July, is about the same size as Adam and cost roughly the same amount to build. "Instead of testing compounds randomly," King says, "Eve tries to determine the best compounds to study." (BBSRC has contributed nearly $1.5 million to the Eve project since it began in May 2008.)
In the future, Adam and Eve will work in tandem, not in Eden but rather in a lab where Adam prepares assays for Eve to use in its search for promising new chemical compounds and drug candidates.