Robots in the lab

In the laboratory of the DSM Biotechnology Center (DBC), two ultramodern robotic systems are figuratively working up a sweat.

“Thanks to these systems we can do very fast, very complex research”, says Center Head Genetics Marieke Overeijnder. The researchers at the DBC are conducting research into new micro-organisms that can be used to make ingredients for food or biofuels. For some time now, they have been able to rely on two advanced robotic systems. “The robots make it possible to find out which is the best from very large numbers of samples in a short time”, says Marieke Overeijnder. “They do that very accurately; they can repeat the same action tirelessly and flawlessly. And they can independently carry out successive steps in the research process.” Of course, this only works if the robots are properly programmed. Overeijnder: “Otherwise you will get a lot of results that are of no use to you. So we spend a lot of time setting up the research properly and programming the robots correctly. And when the results roll in, our data scientists have their hands full analyzing them.”

Leading the way in biotechnology

Lisa Norte, as Group Lead Genetics, is responsible for ensuring that the right people are available for the research projects. “Our team consists of molecular biologists with expertise in robotics and robot programming. This combination of knowledge is unique. In other companies, robotics experts need people to translate the biological question. Here we can skip that step. In addition, it is special that at DSM we can directly apply the results of the research for in-house product development: what starts with us ends, so to speak, on the consumer's plate.”

DSM is at the forefront of this application of robot technology. “You have to”, says Norte. “If we want to maintain our leading position in biotechnology, we need to automate and digitize. Our attention must not wane: the technology continues to develop and we go along with it.” Working with robots is by no means boring. “People sometimes think that, but it is exactly the other way around. Robots do the boring work. Setting up research and managing the robots is actually very creative. No two days are the same for our teams.”

Excellent division of labor

Iris Vredenborg wholeheartedly agrees. As a Senior Genetics Technician, she is involved in the preparation and execution of the experiments and the evaluation of the results. “It's really nice work”, she says. “Preparing an experiment is always a big challenge, but once it runs you will benefit enormously from the robots. You can investigate things that you didn't even dare to think about before, because the technology didn't exist yet or because it would be too much work. Or volumes that are too small to investigate manually.” That does not mean that robots can do everything. “Not all experiments succeed at once, you cannot ask everything from a robot. Especially when you apply a new method, things sometimes go wrong – that's exactly what I learn!” She is not worried that the robot will take over its work. “The robot does the repetitive work, allowing me to focus on things that require creativity. An excellent division of tasks as far as I'm concerned!”

A practical example

At the Biotech Campus Delft, we are working on a solution to bring a sustainable alternative to the market for the sweetener stevia. Stevia comes from plants and, unlike sugar, contains no calories and is therefore better for your health and your teeth. The sweetness comes from so-called “steviol glycosides”, of which 70 different types occur in the leaves of the stevia plant. Each with a slightly different sweetness, and some also with a bitter aftertaste. Unfortunately, the steviol glycosides with the best flavor only occur in less than 1% of the dry weight of the plant. Due to the growing demand for stevia, this causes problems, because many plants have to be grown and a lot of post-processing is required. Typically a case for which modern biotechnology has a solution. The Genetics group of DBC has been able to isolate the correct genes from the stevia plant in a short time with the help of the robots and integrate them into the DNA of a yeast cell. The end result? A yeast cell that produces very efficiently and very pure precisely those steviol glycosides that give the best sweetness. A large-scale solution that offers many benefits in terms of land use, biodiversity, use of chemicals, and waste.