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The Market for Automation

By Robert M. Frederickson

March 12, 2007 | Rapid, efficient, and reproducible purification of DNA, RNA, and protein is a core function of many clinical and research labs. While various platforms exist to handle high-throughput sample preparation demands, there remains a large market for automated low-to-mid-throughput systems. Spin column-based systems are the most frequently used technique for preparation of sample of DNA, RNA, and protein in labs around the world, but to date no fully automated system has been available to process such samples. This changed late last year when Qiagen introduced an automated robotic sample processing system suited to the low-throughput requirements of many laboratories using spin column technology.

The QIAcube is a benchtop robotic system for fully automated sample preparation using the Qiagen spin-column kits that are currently in wide use. Qiagen states that up to 100 applications that are currently run manually are or will be adapted and available for the new system. No change in chemistry is necessary to adapt existing spin kits to the QIAcube, which can purify DNA, RNA, or protein from up to 12 samples per run. All of the steps in the purification process are automated, including sample lysis, binding, washing, and elution — producing material ready for downstream analyses.

The QIAcube comes is a plug-and-play device preinstalled with protocols for purification of plasmid DNA, genomic DNA, RNA, viral nucleic acids, and proteins, plus DNA and RNA cleanup, with additional protocols forecasted to be added in the coming months that can be downloaded from the Qiagen website. Importantly, the system is amenable to use by all levels of laboratory personnel and does not require a dedicated PC. The aim according to Qiagen is to free highly skilled lab workers from the tedious and time-consuming aspects of sample preparation, while addressing reproducibility and quality control. QIAcube also has a simple touch-screen interface. A more detailed white paper on the QIAcube system will be published on this month. In February, Qiagen’s QIAcube received the distinguished New Product Award Designation of the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA) at its annual meeting in Palm Springs, where the new system was officially unveiled to the laboratory community.

Robotic Options
There are of course many other robotic sample preparation options out there, ranging from very low to high-throughput. Qiagen offers two other robotic solutions for low-to-mid throughput applications: the M48, handling 48 samples, and the EZ1, which handles 6 samples. Invitrogen recently introduced the iPrep Purification Instrument, which handles 12 samples in one run. The product appears to be geared toward forensic work, providing automated nucleic acid isolation from forensic, database, and genetic testing samples, using methods that eliminate the use of guanidine and ethanol. The system uses Invotrogen’s ChargeSwitch nucleic acid purification technology based on an ionizable nucleic acid-binding ligand whose charge can be altered based on the pH of the surrounding media.

Thermo Scientific offers the KingFisher 96 or the lower-throughput KingFisher 24. Unlike the QIAcube which runs spin columns, Thermo’s KingFisher offerings are based on magnetic bead technology and are able to process nucleic acid, protein, and even cells in a 96 plate format in the case of the KingFisher 96. It is possible to use existing KingFisher Purification Kits or users can program KingFisher to automate almost any existing magnetic-particle-based method. Promega has recently introduced its Maxwell 16 Instrument, another magnetic-particle-handling instrument designed to process 16 liquid or solid samples as it transports the paramagnetic particles through purification reagents in prefilled cartridges. Several Maxwell 16 reagent kits are available that allow purification from a variety of sample types, with a run time of 30 minutes per sample set. The device can process DNA, RNA, or protein samples.

For more high-throughput applications of kits based on either magnetic bead or spin column technology, both Tecan and Beckman offer products in widespread use. Technical problems arising when using a kit from company A on a machine from company B can be problematic to solve, however, and users are advised to contact their instrument or kit provider of choice directly to determine which particular kits and chemistries have been adapted to a particular automated solution.

Robert M. Frederickson can be reached at:


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