Laboratory technicians, in many different fields of research, spend a lot of time preparing and analyzing cell cultures. The process involves putting cells in a petri dish, adding nutrients, checking on cell growth, and then transferring cells to a separate container once sufficient colonies have been established. In an effort to streamline the laboratory workload, however, German research group Fraunhofer has now created an automated system that performs all of those tasks with no human intervention.

The system was created by a team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology, working with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics.

It's about the size of a small lab, and is made up of separate modules. Institutions using the system could use all of the modules for a completely automated process, or only use some, if they wish to still maintain human control over some steps.

Besides initially setting up the cultures, the system is also capable of assessing microscope images of them, to check how densely covered with cells the surface of the growth medium has become. It does so by placing the cultures on a microscope stage, turning on the microscope's light, and switching and focusing lenses as needed. Users help with the setup for this process, by showing the system what the background medium and the foreground cells look like.

Once it determines that enough cell colonies have formed, another module of the system uses a hollow needle to extract some of them, and transfers them to another container for further study. A robot transport system, which constitutes another module, moves the cultures and cells from station to station.

The Fraunhofer system is currently in use at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, where it has been processing approximately 500 cell cultures a month, in a study on the functions of various proteins.