Cloud biolab to be 'the new computing technology'

We could soon interact with biological materials in the same way we do with computers, Stanford researchers say, after devising a robotic biology cloud lab.

Bioengineers at Stanford University have designed specials environments called biotic processing units (BPUs) to advance the field of interactive biotechnology.

“Biotechnology today is very similar to where computing technology used to be,” said Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford.

“Biological labs are housed in big buildings and the technology is hard to access, but we are changing that,” he said. “We are enabling people to interact with biological materials and perform experiments the way we interact with computers today.”

Riedel-Kruse created a robotic biology cloud lab, one of his most far-reaching projects, capable of carrying out remote-controlled experiments.

According to researchers it acts as an instrument that can hold and repeatedly stimulate biological materials such as cells and measure the responses.

It was designed so that students and scientists can send instructions to the robotic lab and get back experimental results, mimicking cloud-based data sites.

Zahid Hossain, Stanford PhD student who worked with Riedel-Kruse, built the prototype by using LEGO Mindstorms. He created a liquid handling robot, which glides over a flatbed photo scanner containing six petri dishes holding slime mould that feeds off oatmeal.

Using remote control interfaces on their smartphones, students then ordered the robot to drop oatmeal onto specific petri dishes. The software allowed them to choose different droplet patterns and the scanner recorded how the mould followed each trail of oatmeal dots by 'sniffing out' chemical cues in the petri dishes.

For this project Riedel-Kruse's team built three BPUs, all housed in a server rack typically found in a cloud computer site.

“Our prototype BPUs supported 18 users and allowed us to assess the scalability of cloud labs,” Hossain said. “I want to see advanced BPUs supporting many different types of experiments and thousands of different users.”

Riedel-Kruse said that interactive biotechnology is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the evolution of life sciences that will impact society similarly as computing technology has done.

“Cloud labs can change how we work as scientists,” Riedel-Kruse said. “Ultimately, I hope these interactive media make everyone more understanding and comfortable about what microbiology and biotechnology really is.”

The project will be unveiled this week at the Computer Human Interactions (CHI) conference in Seoul, South Korea.

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