Robots reinvent the wheel by turning waste material into fuel

 Robots Lab
29 Jun 2017 14:03:01.903

A state-of-the-art robotics suite, worth more than £1m, will enable scientists at The University of Nottingham to engineer a number of bacterial strains and turbo charge the creation of valuable and novel chemicals and fuels from waste materials.

“It’s a fantastic addition to our research capability because the robots will allow us to not only automate many routine procedures but carry out hundreds of experiments in parallel – something we can’t do currently,” Nigel Minton, Director of the Synthetic Biology Research Centre Nottingham.
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With its modular build, the robotics platform is well suited to help individual researchers at different stages of their work especially when high numbers of samples need to be processed. For example, a researcher may need to test hundreds of primer pair combinations to select a desired PCR product; or they may need to screen hundreds of bacterial colonies in search for a desired DNA fragment or a gene with specific properties.

Currently, these types of experiments can take weeks or even months to accomplish. Use of the robotics platform can reduce the timeframe to less than a week. Additionally, with built in data acquisition, a reporting tool and a barcoding system, scientists can easily access and extract all of the necessary information on protocols or samples at any point in the future.

“This frees up our specialists and highly-skilled research teams to focus on more academically challenging aspects of our work using bacteria to make chemicals and fuels for us sustainably,” Minton explained.

The SBRC Nottingham is a research centre jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It is one of six synthetic biology research centres in the UK, part of a £200m government investment programme.

A focus of the SBRC is engineering microbial chassis able to grow on single carbon waste gases, such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to produce useful platform chemicals that are currently derived from fossil fuels.  We are capitalising on native bacterial CRISPR systems, a major component of the bacterial adaptive immune system, to bring about defined modifications to the genetic make-up of our process organisms.

The time taken to understand and subsequently exploit these systems for advanced engineering is considerably shortened through the use of the robots.

The robotics platform enables automation of common pipelines in molecular biology including plasmid assembly, transformation of bacteria, colony picking and screening. SBRC Nottingham will work with other researchers in the university and in the wider-area to fully utilise the high-throughput capabilities of the equipment. The platforms contain liquid handling robots, thermocyclers, a colony picker and spreader, incubators, shakers and a plate reader, connected by a robotic arm.

The centre’s portfolio of work on the bacteria Clostridia is part of the University’s new Green Chemicals Beacon of Excellence in research — one of six Beacons announced at a launch at the Royal Society in London earlier this month.

Beacons of Excellence

The University of Nottingham is investing £200 million in the future of its research — picking out six beacons of excellence of which ‘Green Chemicals’ is one.

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


Story credits

More information is available from Professor Nigel Minton in the Synthetic Biology Research Centre Nottingham, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 846 7458,; or Emma Thorne, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in the Communications Office at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5793,

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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