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How a Benchtop Real-Time PCR Automation System Works

Problem: Drug discovery labs generate large amounts of real-time PCR data using high-throughput automation systems. However, these systems often require programming expertise, and some small to midsized labs don’t have this expertise on staff.

Pete Skirpstunas

Solution: New developments in qPCR automation eliminate the need for specialized IT expertise. One example, Bio-Rad's CFX Automation System II, can run plates 24/7 on up to two real-time PCR systems simultaneously. It works out of the box and requires no automation experience.

The value of an automation strategy can’t be overstated. Intelligent use of automation can eliminate bottlenecks, minimize hands-on time, and remove delays of “waiting in line” among lab members. Automated plate loaders and real-time PCR systems that require programming expertise enable a lab to use the PCR machines around the clock if the lab has capable programmers.

That’s not always the case for many small or midsized labs though, which might not have the resources to train or hire personnel with programming expertise. Now, developments in real-time PCR automation simplify the process with intuitive user interfaces. New systems like the CFX Automation System II are essentially plug-and-play systems with real-time PCR instruments.

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Even for those without coding experience, these robots can be easily programmed to run up to two real-time PCR systems simultaneously. That cuts down significantly on total project time and makes the machines available to more lab members (Fig 1). From the lab computer, the CFX Automation System II walks the user through a simple configuration and calibration process. Researchers can automatically import gene target information and thermal cycling information, making it easy and quick to set up experiments. The software also makes automated data analysis easy.

Furthermore, the system is compatible with both 96- and 384-well plates, can run separate protocols on two qPCR systems at once and integrates with laboratory information management systems. LIMS integration is particularly valuable in high-throughput environments like pharmaceutical labs because it saves time and minimizes human error associated with manually entering information multiple times. The CFX Automation System II enables LIMS integration by allowing researchers to import barcode information directly from LIMS files. The system can email users the data immediately after the run is completed, which allows people to access data remotely and analyze experiments where and when they want.

Software is only one part of the modern automation solution. The plate handler itself is easy to use. After uncomplicated installation, the CFX Automation System II works with real-time PCR systems such as the CFX96 Touch System, which have factory-calibrated dyes, to enable researchers to start experiments immediately. Its small footprint, even when coupled with two PCR machines, saves valuable bench space. In both form and function, real-time qPCR automation is now a possibility for all pharmaceutical labs.

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Figure 1. Comparing time to completion for large PCR runs with and without automation shows the significance of its impact.
  # of samples # of genes Total # of data points Total # of 384 well plates Total running time Time to completion
One 384 real-time PCR system without automation 1000 50 100,000 260 368 hours ~8 weeks
Two 384 real-time systems, serviced by a single robot 1000 50 100,000 260 368 hours ~1 week