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Perspective: Innovations in Automated Liquid Handling Elevate Genomics Research

By SPT Labtech

In the rapidly evolving field of genomics, the demand for efficient, accurate, and reliable liquid handling has never been greater. As next-generation sequencing (NGS) library preparation, PCR setup, and other high-throughput methodologies become increasingly integral to research, laboratories are seeking ways to enhance workflow efficiency and accuracy. One key strategy to meet these challenges lies in the adoption of automated liquid handling systems, especially those employing innovative positive displacement technology and non-contact dispensing methods. These approaches streamline laboratory processes and greatly improve the precision of liquid handling tasks.

Benefits of Automated Liquid Handling

Automated liquid handling systems increase the efficiency and repeatability of pipetting operations, allowing scientists to devote more time to complex tasks such as experiment design and data analysis. Automation mitigates human error, helping to ensure the consistency and reliability of experimental results and leading to superior data quality. This is especially important in genomics applications, where even minute deviations in liquid volumes can have profound implications on the integrity and accuracy of research outcomes.

Positive Displacement Technology in Genomics

In genomics research, precision in handling highly viscous or volatile substances like DNA solutions, reagents, or magnetic bead slurries is paramount. Unlike air displacement systems that depend on an air buffer between the piston and liquid, positive displacement technology uses a piston that directly interacts with the liquid. This direct contact makes it insensitive to changes in viscosity or volatility, or to any changes in environmental factors, ensuring a level of accuracy essential for managing small liquid volumes.

Graphic showing how positive displacement pipette tips employ a piston that directly interacts with the liquid to draw it into the pipette.

Positive Displacement Versus Air Displacement: A Quick Comparison
  Air displacement Positive displacement
  • Accurate pipetting of aqueous solution in a wide range of volumes.
  • Quick and easy tip replacement.  
  • Inexpensive tips.
  • Agnostic to liquid viscosity and surface tension. 
  • Lack of air cushion limits evaporation and leaking of volatile reagents. 
  • Accurate and precise transfer of reagents <1 mL. 
  • Accuracy and precision depend on the laboratory environment.
  • May require calibration and/or setting adjustment to transfer challenging solutions.
  • Tip shape can lead to shearing of the analyte, e.g., DNA.
  • Tip change can be time consuming.
  • Tips can be expensive. 

Non-Contact Dispensing in Genomics

Non-contact dispensing technology, complementing positive displacement, revolutionizes how labs manage the diverse challenges presented by different reagent types and liquid viscosities, particularly in scaled-down workflows. This approach employs acoustic or electromagnetic forces to precisely eject liquid droplets from their source to a target location. It facilitates the transfer of extremely small volumes, ranging from nanoliters to milliliters, without any physical contact. When synergized with positive displacement technology, non-contact dispensing not only substantially lowers operational expenses, but also elevates the quality of data produced in genomic studies.

Graphic showing how non-contact dispensing tips eject liquid with acoustic or electromagnetic forces.

Future Trends: Moving Towards Integrated Solutions

As the throughput demands and complexity of genomic assays continue to rise, the need for integrated, all-in-one automated solutions becomes increasingly apparent. Laboratories are now looking for systems that can adapt to specialized workflows in genomics, such as NGS, as well as in other fields, like high-throughput drug discovery and structural biology. Integrated systems that offer a comprehensive liquid handling solution will enable labs to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery without needing to sacrifice premium lab space.

Case study: Automating NGS Library Preparation to Improve Pathogen Surveillance Workflows

The HIVE Laboratory at TGen North plays a pivotal role in Arizona's pathogen surveillance initiatives, aiding public health efforts and supporting underserved communities. By employing whole-genome sequencing, the lab tracks emerging outbreaks, fostering well-informed public health responses. The demand for high-throughput sample processing and precise pathogen surveillance exposed challenges in their manual NGS library preparation, such as laborious, error-prone workflows and variabilities among lab technicians.

To address these challenges, TGen North considered automated liquid handling systems from various providers. They selected SPT Labtech’s Firefly for its versatility and efficient use of laboratory space, combining functionalities for 96/384-well pipetting, non-contact dispensing, shaking, and incubating in a compact benchtop design. The choice was further influenced by the system’s intuitive and user-friendly software.

The team rigorously evaluated seven DNA library preparation kits, ultimately opting for the Watchmaker DNA Library Prep Kit with Fragmentation. This kit stood out for its superior conversion rates and a streamlined automation-friendly workflow, compatible with PCR-free options.

The adoption of automated library preparation has significantly enhanced TGen North's capabilities. The new system offers greater flexibility, minimizes reagent wastage, and enables more effective handling of valuable samples. Consequently, this advancement has bolstered TGen North’s capacity for timely pathogen surveillance, while also freeing resources for more complex laboratory tasks.

A full description of the work is detailed in this application note.


In the dynamic and demanding field of genomic research, the adoption of automated liquid handling technologies represents a pivotal advancement. These state-of-the-art technologies provide unmatched precision, adaptability, and efficiency, underpinning the robustness and dependability of high-throughput genomic methods. As the field continues to evolve rapidly, embracing these sophisticated liquid handling solutions becomes essential for research laboratories striving to stay ahead in a landscape marked by fierce competition and continuous innovation.

This sponsored content is provided by an advertiser and published in collaboration with the GW Custom Solutions Group, a division of GenomeWeb. The content was not produced by the editors or reporters of GenomeWeb, 360Dx, or Precision Oncology News, and does not represent the views of these publications or GenomeWeb's parent company, Crain Communications Inc.