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Liquid Handling – Interview Pipetting in the “laboratory of tomorrow”

Editor: Dr. Ilka Ottleben

Will manual pipettes still be around in 50 years’ time? What challenges lie ahead? What opportunities? Two Eppendorf experts share their views with LP. The conversation was conducted by Dr. Ilka Ottleben.

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“Hypothesis-driven research continues to be difficult to automate.” Dr. Kay Koerner (left), Project Leader Marketing for Industrial Markets, Healthcare, Medical Devices, Eppendorf AG
“Hypothesis-driven research continues to be difficult to automate.” Dr. Kay Koerner (left), Project Leader Marketing for Industrial Markets, Healthcare, Medical Devices, Eppendorf AG
(Source: Eppendorf AG)

LP: It has been more than 50 years since Eppendorf introduced the microliter pipette to the market. Is this model still recognizable in today’s systems?

Dr. Florian Bundis: The pipette that we refer to as the “Marburg Pipette” does indeed feature certain technical elements that are still in use today. The basic principles have not changed significantly since that time. The Marburg Pipette is a piston-stroke pipette that functions in combination with disposable tips. This combination, which today we understand as a system, i.e. an instrument that I will re-use and a single-use consumable that I will discard, existed then, and this is how manual pipettes work to this day.

Of course the details have changed substantially over time in order to meet the increasing demands placed on the system, and precision and accuracy have improved considerably. That being said, the basic principles are still visible and have remained largely unchanged.

LP: The trend towards digitization will not spare the laboratory and will therefore not spare the pipetting process either. Which areas of development can you foresee?

Dr. Kay Koerner: In my view, it will become more and more fascinating to see what type of data a pipette can deliver, and which of these data the customer will require. Even research is becoming increasingly regulated. If, for example, the user must provide proof that a pipette is calibrated, this fact must be documented, and if this is the case, where should this type of documentation be recorded? Will we have to go so far as to stop using the pipette altogether if the re-calibration date has expired? Generally, this opens up the question of what type of software solutions we are able to offer our customers that will facilitate their workflow.

The topic of Big Data, too, is certain to continue to gain significance, and the trend clearly points toward software-based solutions for the purpose of data storage and management. At the same time, a shift is noticeable in research, mainly industry-based research, towards highly automated workflows. Here, especially, the advantages of small volumes, highest possible reproducibility as well as time efficiency and cost efficiency, are maximized through automation. After all, Eppendorf has served the field of laboratory automation since 2003. With regard to software solutions, which are bound to come our way even in areas dominated by manual systems, we are prepared and we will therefore be able to benefit enormously from our previous expertise.


Dr. Bundis: The future will most certainly present us with an important link between these two trends; mainly any time a project progresses from purely basic research into a scale-up process. One example is assay development in the pharmaceutical industry. It is conceivable that electronic pipettes and perhaps eventually manual pipettes as well will facilitate this scale-up process by transferring the recorded data directly to a pipetting machine. Of course we also observe that significant country-specific differences continue to exist with respect to the need for documentation and automation.

LP: Will the “laboratory of the future” feature any manual pipettes at all?

Dr. Koerner: Research continues to be strongly hypothesis-driven – and it is bound to remain this way in the future. Hypothesis-driven research is difficult to automate, which is why researchers will most likely always choose a manual process initially. Therefore, manual pipettes will remain highly exciting.

LP: How is the sector changing?

Dr. Koerner: On the one hand, one can say that in many areas, in service laboratories as well as in pharmaceutical or clinical research, the regulatory requirements are steadily increasing, which results in increasing demands on the products. Providing the user with the correct custom solutions in such regulated environments is currently a major focus at Eppendorf. On the other hand, we notice that the sector is expanding, with more and more industries employing molecular technologies. This is where the enormous progress in molecular biology over the past 20 years is culminating in an immense number of new industrial applications; for example, in the cosmetics industry, the food and beverage industries, but also in the petrochemical industry.

LP: Are there any specific areas for which you can foresee a particularly high developmental potential?

Dr. Koerner: I believe that we have fully grasped the significance of Next Generation Sequencing as it pertains to research. In clinical applications, however, development of this technology is still in progress; for example, if you consider the application of NGS in the field of personalized medicine. This is the area for which we can envision the highest future potential for our NGS-ready automation solutions.

Dr. Bundis: Especially since the prices for consumables and reagents are falling in this area. The price-per-base constitutes the pacesetter in the field of NGS applications. If this price continues to decline, a vast number of new areas of application will become accessible as new possibilities thus far inconceivable will begin to open up, or as even established methods will be supplanted. As a result, the demand for the respective peripheral instruments is expected to rise – from our end, this would be the epMotion systems, employed for the generation of sequencing libraries.

Dr. Koerner: This being said, the topic of NGS is a fine example of how the gain in information as well as breakthroughs are enormous while at the same time, they remain incapable of answering all of humanity’s questions. And in the end, there will always be that one researcher with his or her pipette who will say, this particular aspect has piqued my interest, and I will make it my project. Eppendorf and its microliter system has been successful for the past fifty years and I dare say that the manual pipette is not going extinct but will remain viable for at least another 50 years.

Thank you very much for the conversation, Dr. Koerner and Dr. Bundis.