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Innovation Drives the Life Sciences. So, Why Do We Still Use Paper Lab Notebooks?

By Casey Burnett 6 min read 27 Jun 2024

In 1950, medical knowledge was on pace to double every fifty years. 

By 1980, the doubling time was seven years. 

By 2010, it was cut to three and a half years. 

And the rate of data growth continues to increase. There were 153 exabytes of global healthcare data generated in 2013 alone, which rose to an estimated 2,314 exabytes generated in 2020.

This acceleration is incredible, yet it’s happening irrespective of how all that information is used. In this blog, we’ll review the innovation that led to our current golden age of laboratory automation and how data management can be further improved in the life sciences.

Innovation Begets Innovation: Historical Examples in the Life Sciences

When I initially read about the data doubling time over the past few decades, I wondered what caused such a rapid increase in these timelines. In the 1950s, the Nobel Prize was awarded to John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins for growing poliovirus in culture, paving the way for large-scale vaccine production, and contributing to the development of the measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox vaccines. 

Before this advancement, the first electrically driven centrifuges were introduced in 1910, and in the late 1940s, the first subcellular components were isolated using centrifugation. Shortly after these techniques proved helpful, the abovementioned breakthroughs by Enders, Weller, and Robbins happened. 

Was it the sole reason? 

Almost certainly not. However, the continued innovation revolutionised Enders and colleagues’ knowledge of intracellular components’ structure, composition, and function. Also, it demonstrated the incredible potential of centrifugation for biomedical research.

Skip ahead to the ’70s and ’80s when Walter Fiers became the first to sequence the DNA of a complete gene (the gene encoding the coat protein of a bacteriophage MS2). Next, Fredrick Sanger introduced the dideoxy chain-terminating method for sequencing DNA molecules, which became the most widely used for over 30 years. 

However, Sanger sequencing lacked automation and was very time-consuming. In 1987, Leroy Hood and Michael Hunkapiller succeeded in automating Sanger sequencing by bringing two major improvements to the method. DNA fragments were labelled with fluorescent dyes instead of radioactive molecules, and the data acquisition and analysis were made possible on the computer. The creation of the AB370A in 1986 was a huge step in increasing the throughput of this revolutionary technique, leading to the sequencing of 96 samples simultaneously.

Thus, “first-generation sequencing” was born. 

Next on the Horizon: Liquid Handling and Automation

The way automation helped advance DNA sequencing served as a landmark for further laboratory automation. The first automated liquid handler was built when the first complete gene was sequenced. As mentioned above, its development occurred in discrete steps. 

In the ‘70s, companies added a motor to pipettes to control aspiration and dispensing. 

In the ‘80s, we saw full workstations able to complete complex protocols. 

And in the ‘90s, high-throughput screening was developed, 

Followed in the early 2000s with next-generation sequencing (NGS). 

Soon after, the advancement of the computer and user-friendly software from companies like Eppendorf launched liquid handling into the mainstream.

Liquid handling is one of the most variable tasks in a lab and undoubtedly the most time-consuming. The development of automated workstations, combined with the modern-day computer, has certainly contributed to the increase in scientific knowledge. 

But, the cost of automated instrumentation has long prohibited widespread implementation. Remember, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, automation was available but only to the labs/companies who were willing to shell out a pretty penny for the workstations. The companies producing these units required dedicated software programmers; some still require that speciality! 

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that automation became more attainable due to lower costs and increased ease of use. It wasn’t just the pharmaceutical companies and well-funded biotechs that had access anymore. With the release of liquid handlers from Eppendorf, like the first automated pipetting system, the EpMotion, every lab could see a dramatic reduction in their pipetting error, increased throughput, and better compliance with strict regulatory requirements. Automated workflows now drive huge innovations and breakthroughs. Below, we delve into why automated liquid handlers, specifically Eppendorf’s EpMotion, are indispensable in a research lab and their numerous benefits:

  1. Precision and Accuracy: One of the key features of the Eppendorf EpMotion liquid handler is its exceptional precision and accuracy. With advanced pipetting technologies, innovative liquid level detection, and intelligent software algorithms, the EpMotion system ensures precise and reproducible pipetting of samples, reagents, and buffers. This level of accuracy minimises human error, enhances experimental reliability, and significantly improves data quality.
  2. Flexibility and Scalability: The Eppendorf EpMotion series offers a wide range of liquid handling platforms to meet the diverse needs of laboratories, from small-scale research projects to high-throughput applications. Whether you require a compact benchtop system or a fully automated robotic workstation, Eppendorf provides a solution that can be tailored to your specific requirements. 
  3. Intuitive Software and User-Friendly Interface: Eppendorf understands the importance of user experience and has developed a user-friendly software interface for the EpMotion liquid handler. The intuitive software allows for easy programming of pipetting protocols, sample tracking, and data management. The graphical user interface (GUI) provides step-by-step guidance, making it simple for experienced researchers and newcomers to operate the system efficiently. Additionally, the software can seamlessly integrate with laboratory information management systems (LIMS) for streamlined data transfer and analysis.
  4. Versatility Across Applications: The Eppendorf EpMotion liquid handler is suitable for various applications, including genomics, proteomics, drug discovery, assay development, and more. Its flexible pipetting capabilities enable precise handling of different sample types, volumes, and formats, including microplates, tubes, and reservoirs. Whether you need to perform PCR setup, nucleic acid purification, serial dilutions, sample transfers, or NGS library prep, the EpMotion system can streamline your workflow and save valuable time.
  5. Eppendorf Quality and Support: Eppendorf is renowned for its commitment to quality and customer support. The EpMotion liquid handler is built with high-quality materials and undergoes rigorous testing to ensure reliability and long-term performance. Eppendorf’s worldwide network of service and support teams provides timely assistance, troubleshooting, and maintenance, ensuring the uninterrupted operation of your liquid handling system.

These benefits and EpMotion’s robust history in launching and driving laboratory automation have empowered the life science industry to continue innovating.

Data Management on Paper: A Problem Ripe for Innovation

We’ve used technology to advance and accelerate sequencing and liquid handling, yet other things we do in labs have remained woefully archaic.

I’m still puzzled when I work with researchers and labs on automating their methods, and most lab members are still carrying around huge notebooks filled with their protocols, notes, results, tweaks, etc. 

The same process was used back in 1950 when Enders, Weller, and Robbins were culturing the poliovirus in search of a vaccine. Yet, as I said at the beginning of this blog, the amount of data generated by lab scientists has exploded! How can the life science industry expect to manage it using only paper?

It’s Time for Next-Generation Lab Notebooks

eLabNext is critical in the next step of our advancement in the scientific industry: It provides a digital platform for tracking your samples, integrating with automated liquid handlers, mapping and visualising your workflow, keeping your data secure, managing your inventory, and easy collaboration. eLabNext has a way of organising and thus prioritising useful and actionable data. 

At Eppendorf and eLabNext, we have an end-to-end solution for the modern laboratory: Sample tracking from the sample inception to cold storage, processing on your EpMotion, and beyond. 

And now that AI is making even more inroads into the life sciences, integration with digital platforms is the next exciting innovation on the horizon! Read 10 Actionable Steps for Using AI in Your Research Lab to learn more.

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