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Evolution of Microplate Technology

This guide will take a look at the evolution of three main areas of microplate technology–instrumentation, applications and the plates themselves.

by John Buie

Enter any clinical diagnostic or research lab today and you will see the intricate dance of microplates being filled with samples, transported into various diagnostic and analytical instruments, washed, and then begin the process all over again. The microplate has evolved over the past 60 years into an indispensable piece of equipment used in many labs today. This guide will take a look at the evolution of three main areas of microplate technology—instrumentation, applications and the plates themselves.



Dr. Gyula Takatsy created the first microplate by constructing 6 rows of 12 wells into a block of acrylic, which were used in place of test tubes.


The use of microplates caught on enough that the first manufacturer, the American Linbro Company, began mass producing the molded 96-well microplates. This led to a substantial gain in momentum for the platform.


Helix Diagnostics, now Bio-Rad, produced the first 864-well microplate. This made it possible for a single machine to increase its throughput to over 10,000 samples per day.


Continuing advancements in various sized microplates to find the right combination of thermal mass and capacity, led toGenetix producing the first 384-well plate.


One of the most important evolutions of the microplate was led by the SBS (Society for Bimolecular Screening) and a key group of manufacturers who set out to establish standards that all microplates would meet going forward. The standardization led to an increased ability to develop automation equipment to move, sort and wash plates in future instruments. All microplate manufacturers at this time modified their production equipment to the exact specifications of the new microplate standards.



During the same time frame, Dr. Takatsy also developed the first form of a microplate automation tool, a loop that mixed and transferred a pre-defined volume from one well to another. This was used in serial dilution testing.


Dr. Sever teamed up with Cooke Engineering to begin manufacturing a more automated loop system. With the help of Frank Cooke, they introduced the first manufactured screw machines loops and droppers called the Microtiter®. Lab technicians held between 8 and 12 loops in their hands while twirling them and moving them from row to row in a plate. While this was still a manual process, it provided a vast improvement in throughput and accuracy.


Seeing the need for a fully automated serial dilution instrument, Tom Astle at Astec (now TomTec) produced the Autotiter. After being deployed at Smith Kline & French to perform thousands of Hemagglutination inhibition tests for the trial of their Rubella vaccine, the Autotiter earned its stripes and became a popular instrument in the clinical lab.


The demand for advanced instruments to perform ELISAs prompted the manufacturer Lab Systems, now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, to evolve the early microplate readers into the Multiskan photometer. This is the earliest version of the common day microplate reader.


Wallac (now PerkinElmer) developed the first automated microplatebased instrument for scintillation counting, the Wallac Betaplate.


Tom Astle at TomTec continued to drive innovation and meet the needs of drug discovery labs by adding harvesting and automated pipetting functionality to the popular Wallac Betaplate. This resulted in the production of the Harvestor2 and Quadra 3 automated pipettors.


BMG LABTECH, which has a continued history of firsts in microplate technology, introduced the first multi-detection microplate reader that included fluorescence polarization with the BMG POLARstar.


With BioTek’s introduction of the Synergy™ 4 with Hybrid Technology, scientists had a multi-detection system capable of performing an unlimited number of microplatebased assays.


BMG LABTECH evolved its offering to the POLARstar Omega, delivering the first multi-detection microplate reader on the market with UV/VIS Spectrometer absorbance.


BioTek continues to evolve microplate automation with the release of the EL406, which combines both a microplate washer and reagent dispenser in one instrument, eliminating the need to maintain and purchase separate instruments.



His goal was to increase the throughput and reliability of influenza virus identification tests needed to address an epidemic in his home country of Hungary.


While working at NIH (National Institutes of Health) Dr. John Sever saw the need to mechanize the loop system being used for serial dilution in order to keep up with the demands of the Rubella vaccine program being launched by NIH.


Perhaps one of the most common applications for microplates started to take form when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in London began using microplates for ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) diagnostics and quality control techniques.