Engineering the Future of Agricultural Biology

Sep 09, 2013

Enhancing productivity, food safety and ecological sustainability

Agricultural BiologyLook around. You are surrounded by agricultural biology in action. From the endless green fields of corn and soybeans stretching across the Midwest and the vibrant yellow sunflowers of Canada, to the vast rice paddies of Asia and the lush green mountains of coffee growing in Central America, agricultural biology, or the use of biotechnology for more sustainable agriculture, is everywhere.

The science of agricultural biology focuses on developments to enhance productivity while sustaining the integrity of ecological processes. Once the stuff of science fiction, today’s agricultural biologists continue to unveil solutions to various global problems, ranging from food shortage to the preservation of environmental resources.

Agricultural biologists want to accentuate particular valuable traits in plants and animals for disease resistance, robustness and profitability. This feat requires the ability to perform genetic analysis at very low cost and very high throughput. Genetic markers represent one of the most powerful tools for the analysis of plant genomes.  By using genetic markers, laboratories can screen for variations in the plant’s DNA, including disease resistance and propensity, which can have a serious effect on agricultural productivity.

Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), a DNA sequence variation, have emerged as the predominant sequence-based marker across applications in modern plant genetic analysis.  SNPs can affect how plants and animals develop diseases and how they respond to certain medicines, vaccinations and other chemicals.  This knowledge is critical for molecular plant breeding and agricultural development.  With SNP genotyping throughput being such a strong focus in the agricultural biology world, new technology platforms have been developed to improve efficiency and lower costs associated per data point.

Enter Douglas Scientific. Douglas Scientific has a technology platform that allows for high throughput screening of SNPs, at a lower cost per test as compared with conventional testing procedures. The Minnesota-based company’s Array Tape™ is a continuous plastic strip in which standard-format 96-, 384-, or 1,536-well arrays are serially embossed. Array Tape™ is used in conjunction with a flexible inline configuration of dispensing, pipetting, sealing, PCR thermocycling and detection modules. This allows for automated, continuous processing of hundreds of arrays without the requirement for robots or complex plate-handling equipment.  In essence, the reel of Array Tape™ is positioned on the Array Tape Platform for integrated end to end sample processing. Instead of replacing a microtiter plate after each dispense, users of the Douglas Scientific Array Tape™ platforms can run their assays non-stop and at much faster speeds. Not surprisingly, the company has been attracting major players in agricultural biology interested in their technology.

Bringing a Higher Quality to the World

Douglas Scientific is dedicated to making the world a better place by delivering innovative laboratory automation, and by providing precise and accurate data to laboratories all over the world.  The Array Tape™ Platform allows continuous, accurate liquid handling and analysis so that laboratories can save time and money by being more efficient with their tests.

By using Douglas Scientific’s technology, labs were able to see the difference in the quality of their results, and in the time it took to produce them.

“Array Tape™ is a highly automated, flexible microplate replacement for high throughput screening that allows for a streamlined lab processes,” said Darren Cook, Business Development Executive at Douglas Scientific. “We provide a best of breed solution by integrating other OEM solutions, which enabled us to leverage the accuracy and reliability in our instrumentation. For instance, we use CyBio’s dispense technology on our liquid handlers.”

While the word of the cost savings and efficiencies of the Douglas Scientific Array Tape™ spread through the industry, the company searched for effective calibration methods that would increase the system’s credibility, especially when it came to liquid handling.

Enter Artel. Since November 2009, Syngenta—one of the world’s leading agribusiness companies, and one of Douglas Scientific’s customers—has employed the Artel MVS® Multichannel Verification System to verify the volume transfer performance of its automated liquid handling systems. The MVS uses a patented method based on dual-dye Ratiometric Photometry to determine both the accuracy and precision of each individual channel of a multichannel liquid delivery device.  This method allows Syngenta to calibrate its liquid handlers on a channel-by-channel basis at very low volumes, even below 1µL, so it can rely on its results.  In addition, all measurements made with the MVS are traceable to International System of Units, so Syngenta knows that its results meet global standards.

After seeing Syngenta’s successes using Artel’s technology, Douglas Scientific acquired its own MVS to assure customers that its liquid handlers have been quality tested using Artel’s calibration system through the provision of traceable data.  Not only is Douglas Scientific now able to provide its customers with assurance of quality, but the MVS also saves valuable time.  The MVS can generate volume measurement readings in under 10 minutes, while previous methods took significantly longer. “We understood that by being able to verify our equipment using the MVS, we would be offering companies like Syngenta peace of mind,” says Cook. “We are able to back the claim that our dispensing technology is among the best in class available on the market today.”

On average, agricultural biology labs that use Douglas Scientific’s Array Tape™ technology to perform SNP genotyping and other assays requiring high-throughput data collection were able to increase their output from about 150 microtiter plates per day in a 384-well format to 400 arrays per day on tape in a 384-well format. In addition, the labs were able to nearly triple the data points processed in less time compared to existing platforms. Ensuring that each dispense is precise and accurate with the MVS technology means no wasted reagents and more high-quality data, which translates into maximized results.  “One of the greatest challenges for a marker-assisted plant breeding program is the timely and precise delivery of genetic information to breeders and geneticists,” noted Etienne Kaszás, North American Genotyping Manager, Syngenta. “Millions of data points must be generated and reported on a weekly basis; and in order to meet this challenge, the deployment of high-throughput genotyping platforms is critical. The technology from Douglas Scientific allows Syngenta to increase the amount of data points screened daily, which increases efficiency and lowers costs in the lab.”

“Using the MVS for factory acceptance testing and again during site installation provides Douglas Scientific’s customers with solid evidence that their specific system is performing to specification,” said Cook. Indeed, the company uses the Artel MVS to issue “birth certificates” for its new equipment.

“The MVS has proven to be a valuable tool in the evaluation of liquid handling technologies for our engineering team,” explained Cook. “From a QC standpoint, all liquid handler manufacturers make claims of accurate dispenses and low CVs. Using the MVS, we can now validate those claims on our systems and provide our customers with proof of accuracy.”

The Future of Agricultural Biology

According to a recent study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, massive population growth and escalating demands for food, fiber and fuel provides the framework for investing in agricultural biology.  The study states that by 2050, the world population is expected to exceed 9 billion people, up from 6.5 billion today.  Already a gap is emerging between agricultural production and demand.  With resources becoming scarce due to climate change and natural disasters, and a growing percentage of the world living in hunger, genetically modified agriculture provides life saving nutrition to those in need.

The first genetically engineered crop to come out of agricultural biology went on the market in 1994. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that a new tomato, which could be shipped vine-ripened without rotting rapidly, was as safe as other commercial tomatoes. Since then, more than 50 other genetically engineered foods have been determined to be as safe as their conventional counterparts.

As more and more genetically engineered alternatives are developed in efforts to eradicate food shortages and overcome droughts, they’ll owe much of their existence to the high-throughput tests that identified their genetic code. The equipment that ensures these tests are performed accurately and the dissemination of precise data have the burden of responsibility and safety.

“Douglas Scientific holds its customers in very high regard,” said Bjoern Carle, PhD, Product Manager, Artel. “The company really cares about the performance of its instruments and recognizes the importance of accuracy and precision. With the Artel MVS, Douglas Scientific can rest assured that its systems are performing well and are delivering the volumes they are programmed to deliver.”

Douglas Scientific’s ability to guarantee precise and accurate dispenses on its liquid handlers has started to attract labs in other areas of life sciences performing high-throughput work, including drug discovery. With its commitment to quality assurance, the company is emerging as an important partner in developing technologies and platforms that help life science laboratories perform their important research, and trust their results.

Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality; there’s no guessing what breakthroughs lay ahead in the many fields of biotechnology. But there is one certainty: accurate and precise results will never become obsolete.  Douglas Scientific and Artel are working together to bring quality to the laboratory and quality to life, making the world a better place.