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Predictions for the lab of the future

How digital technologies are going to change the day-to-day life of scientists

When picturing the future, rarely do we think of stacks of paperwork, cluttered benches or dirty glassware. No, the lab of the future – in our minds – is minimalistic, automated and if we’re imaginative, comes with an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven helper to record and set up our experiments.

Vision close to reality

In the current Big Data revolution, many long-existing technologies like AI are now being primed for use in the lab.

Blockchain is also on the horizon, while laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) are unlocking the potential for new and exciting cloud-based sciences, including remote execution of experiments.

Yet whilst digital preservation of intellectual legacy is occurring across so many industries, why is it in the lab, from the smaller academic setups to industry R&D, are we still seeing such a slow uptake of digital tools?

Well, while a large part of this reluctance is cultural, perhaps there is also a misperception of how important digitisation can be for the working scientist.

Hooking up to the cloud

One benefit of cloud storage of lab book contents is that valuable research can be immortalised, allowing new members of the lab to build on hours of painstaking work already invested.

The ability to build digital lab archives, remotely share, edit and sign-off on work are all essential functions in the lab of the future, and industry giants are taking note. For example, Merck’s accelerator has supported and invested in dozens of disruptive startups in the lab automation & sharing space.

Such tools then open the possibility of relationships with third party service providers, such as CROs, mail order reagent and cloud manufacturers. Having taken off in the US life science ecosystems, the cloud manufacturing hype is now translating to the European industry as well, with more startups opting to decentralise and become virtual.

But perhaps the real innovation driver for the lab of the future isn’t just the appeal of virtual labs, but simple integration and centralisation of equipment which the lab has already invested in heavily.

So how is this tackled?

Curing the “Babel Effect”

Standardisation of data produced by labs is an essential step towards improving accessibility of results, in turn making them more reproducible.

For example, switching to a framework based on the Internet of Things (IoT) could remove data roadblocks in multi-vendor setups, which currently slow down workflow. Consortia like the not-for-profit Standardization in Laboratory Automation (SiLA) initiative are drawing together pioneers in this field, easing collaboration between instrument vendors and promoting open source and exchange of instrument protocols.

SiLA is also promoting AnIML, a grassroots driven data format seeking to address the “Tower of Babel effect” – where each lab instrument speaks a different language. Homogenizing the communication medium between manufacturers using an XML-based data format would, therefore, solve this problem, and also allow potential off-the-shelf use of thousands of new tools.

Security versus accessibility

However, one large barrier to digitisation in the lab space is security concerns: preserving integrity and confidentiality of IP until publication.

As well as guarding against the loss of paper-based tables and carefully annotated protocols, uploading techniques and stock records to a LIMS or ELN also establishes an essential audit trail. This is particularly vital for larger labs, where access to materials can span a large research team, and monitoring of hierarchical access can be complicated to manage.

Additionally, new sharing platforms based on technology like blockchain, which has enabled the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, will also change how access to research is managed. For example, startups like Katalysis in The Netherlands are emerging to bring blockchain technology to science publishing.

With such a framework, individuals across teams can upload their own alterations to shared databases, without erasing the original. And if some data is super-sensitive, digitisation can occur in a closed system, limiting off-site access to the physical realm again.

So, in the lab of the future, no researcher has to be an island. But to get there, it is time to abandon analogue-only practices, and adopt digital tools to democratise research without compromising the security or value of information.

Simon Bungers

Simon is a trained molecular biologist who obtained his PhD from the Max-Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany. As co-founder of labfolder, an innovative electronic laboratory notebook for researchers, he envisions a future where smart, automated and digital tools are the cornerstones in every lab.

Featured image credit: CC-BY 3.0 by CSIRO

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