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Meet Adam and Eve: AI Lab-Bots That Can Take On Reams of Data

Scientists build autonomous labs that use computers, robotics and lab equipment to experiment and analyze results
robot, artificial intelligence, AI



© JEN ROWLAND

This time, for "Adam and Eve" knowledge is not forbidden—it's their mission. Working with computers and robots in the lab, scientists have been able to generate exponentially increasing amounts of data as the technology improves. Concerned they lack the manpower to translate the deluge of raw information into results, researchers are programming their mechanical lab assistants to share more of the workload. A prime example of this is "Adam," an autonomous mini laboratory that uses computers, robotics and lab equipment to conduct scientific experiments, automatically generate hypotheses to explain the resulting data, test these hypotheses, and then interpret the results.

Researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales and England's University of Cambridge report in Science today that they designed Adam—which is 16.4 feet (five meters) in length, with a height and width of 9.8 feet (three meters)—to perform basic biology experiments with minimal human intervention. They describe how the bot operates by relating how he carried out one of his tasks, in this case to find out more about the genetic makeup of baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems.

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesized that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions. The robot devised experiments to test these beliefs, ran the experiments, and interpreted the results. Because biological organisms are so complex, the details of biological experiments must be recorded in great detail so those experiments can faithfully be reproduced, even if this record-keeping is tedious, says lead study author Ross King, an Aberystwyth computer science professor. "With a computer, all of the results and conclusions and structure are expressed in logic," he says, "that can uniformly be understood by other researchers."

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.

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