Danforth Center Shows Off Awesome New Toy Robot

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The Danforth Center's new robot, already at work, sort of. - courtesy Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
courtesy Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
The Danforth Center's new robot, already at work, sort of.

Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are all aflurry this week over the new toy that just got delivered. Sorry, it's a tool that will advance our understanding of the plant world and affect agriculture and biofuel production and etc., etc., etc., that just happens to come in the form of a robot.

But we must point out that test tubes are also tools and nobody gathers around to marvel over them when a new shipment gets delivered or starts a contest, open to the public, to give those adorable little vessels names. As far as we know.

The new robot is state-of-the-art in terms of technology, but slightly retro in terms of form: It bears more of a resemblance to the maternal, utilitarian Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons than the sleek and streamlined EVE from WALL*E. Which is entirely appropriate, since this sucker was made to work its plastic ass off.

The lucky recipient is Todd Mockler, leader of a lab in the Danforth Center that studies plant genetics. Mockler is a nice guy, though; he's planning to share his new toy.

Mockler's lab studies plant genetics, specifically how different genes respond to changes in the environment. The idea is that one day they can use that knowledge to breed drought-resistant corn, say, or algae that can withstand excessive cold and be used for biofuel.

It's a noble goal. The only problem is, there are between 30,000 and 60,000 genes in most plant genomes, and there's no map. And there's another factor: proteins called transcription factors which bind to DNA and determine which genes get turned off and on. Mockler calculates there are about 60 million combinations of transcription factors and genes in any given plant.

In order to figure out which transcription factors affect which genes and what, exactly, they do, scientists actually have to bind the transcription factors to the genes in the lab, a common scientific practice known as "let's see what this does." It is, unfortunately, a painstaking (and, frankly, tedious) process involving test tubes, pipettes, incubators and centrifuges, and just imagine doing it 60 million times.

Danforth Center Shows Off Awesome New Toy Robot
courtesy Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Enter the robot, which will do all that scut work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, requiring nothing besides a kindly human technician to give it more pipettes and push a button every now and again. It's immune to fatigue and daydreaming and stupid errors that will screw up the science and it can run three experiments simultaneously.

"It's brute force science," says Mockler. "We'll be far more productive with a far lower error rate. This will accelerate discoveries. In a year, we'll know more than is known to date."

With the help of the robot, Mockler hopes to create a map of the plant genome, similar to the Human Genome Project. He's starting with brachypodium, a type of grass commonly used in the plant science world as a "model species" the way fruit flies are used in animal science, because they're small, have a short life cycle, are easy to work with and, most importantly, have a lot of genes in common with other plants, namely cereals and grains used for biofuels.

The robot was custom-designed by the Canadian firm Thermo Fisher Scientific. Engineers from Thermo came down to St. Louis to unpack and set up the robot and make sure it works perfectly. Such service -- not to mention the robot itself -- does not come without a price, in this case, just shy of $1 million, contributed by the Danforth Center and grants from the Department of Energy. Mockler knows of just two other similar robots in plant science labs in the U.S., both in California.

The robot will start work next week. There's been talk of training it to wave at visitors to the lab, but Mockler doubts this will happen. Still, he's very pleased with his new toy.

"One of the best things about being a scientist," he says, "is that it's a job that's more like a hobby."

After the jump, a video of the robot practicing for its new job.

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