By Bio-IT World Staff
July 30, 2014 | Yaniv Erlich is best known as a "genome hacker," demonstrating how anonymous genome sequences in public databases can be linked back to personal information on their donors. His lab at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, however, has worked on a wide variety of problems at the interface of life science and IT. Now, the same team that brought us the "Hitchhiker's Guide to Genome Hacking" has turned its formidable skills to a problem that plagues every working biologist: how to efficiently move small volumes of liquid around the lab.
Pipetting is a constant in biology labs, but aside from being dull work, it can be infuriatingly complex when experimental procedures call for many different samples to be transferred in a consistent, traceable pattern. The process is a common source of human error, and even robotic error as expensive robotics systems fail to notice a faulty pipette or a small amount of reagent left behind in a well. Today, the Erlich lab unveiled its solution to the problem in a letter in Nature Methods: a free and open source app that turns iPads and other tablets into pipetting lab benches.
The iPipet app, which has a dedicated website to train new users, can be programmed with any lab protocol that involves pipetting liquids between standard size well plates. The plates are placed physically on top of the tablet, which then lights up the wells that liquids need to be moved to and from. The Erlich lab has even made a plastic tablet sleeve with slots to hold the well plates in place, which can be recreated on any 3D printer. Programming is done in Excel, making it well within reach for even the least computer-savvy lab technician.
The Whitehead Institute even set iPipet in a race against a robotics system, and found humans armed with their iPads could perform twice as many pipetting steps in the same time as the robots.
It's not the most glamorous project to come out of the Erlich lab, but bench workers the world over will be glad to see this top-notch bioinformatics team using its powers for good.
The iPipet App in action. Image credit: Whitehead Institute