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Robots in need of names

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2012 - Robots may be machines, but they often seem human enough to have names and personalities. R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars are stars themselves. The Jetsons’ robot maid, Rosie, was clearly of the feminine persuasion, while Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet is masculine. So is Wall-E. 

Robot fans have a chance this week to choose a name for two robots arriving soon at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Joining Todd Mockler’s laboratory will be the large (8x12 feet) robot shown in the photo and a smaller one (2x4 feet).

Should they be called Lewis and Clark or Growbot and Pip?  How about Prometheus and Athena or Dr. Evil and Mini Me or Rosie and Max? These are the names the center has chosen for consideration.

Informed voters will want to check out the large robot in action. Then, after watching the robot scurry around for a few minutes, fill out theballot. Voting will continue through Fri., April 20.

Why robots?

The Danforth Center is spotlighting the arrival of these robots because they represent what Mockler calls “enabling technology.” The human genome project is a result of such enabling technology. Scientists have known how to determine the sequence of the nucleotide building blocks of a gene’s DNA for a fairly long time. However, the method was tedious and time consuming. There was no hope of sequencing the entire human genome until the process was automated. Because of advances in automation, that monumental task was actually finished ahead of schedule.

Mockler’s research is concerned with the regulation of plant genes in response to various kinds of stress, such as drought or flooding. The plant he works on is Brachypodium, a model for cereal crops such as rice, wheat, barley and oats. He wants to identify key regulatory genes in stress response. These genes can then be the focus of biotechnology or conventional breeding to grow improved plants that yield good crops even under adverse conditions.

Brachypodium has about 30,000 individual genes. Of those about 2,000 are regulators. These genes produce proteins that bind to DNA and switch on, switch off, or modulate a particular gene’s activity. Sometimes two or more regulators control a single gene.

Without automation, finding out which regulators work on which genes is theoretically possible — as long as the supply of either time or personnel is unlimited. It would involve a minimum of 60 million individual experiments. 

Mockler gives the example of light-switches. Suppose a room has 10,000 lights, and 1,000 switches. It would be possible to find which switches turn on which lights. But if some lights took two switches, or if some switches would prevent certain lights from turning on, it is easy to see how the complexity of the problem increases greatly.

Enter the robot. It can do about 200,000 tedious experiments a week. It won’t become distracted and mix up samples. With a robot, analyzing exactly how 2,000 genes control 30,000 genes changes from a “dream experiment” to an attainable goal.

Designing the big robot was a six-month process. For three months the Danforth scientists made a “wish-list” of functionalities from a scientific perspective.  Then for three more months they worked with the engineers at Thermo Fisher Scientific to design a one-of-a-kind machine that integrates 16 instruments with a robotic arm. Now this room-sized robot is finished and about ready to get to work.

What the robot means to St. Louis

Introduction of automation to plant science opens up new avenues of research. According to Mockler, the Danforth Center views this advanced technology as a contribution toward making the St. Louis region a hub for life sciences.

The robot is already slated to be involved in scientific collaborations locally and nationwide.

In the meantime, the naming opportunity is intended to involve the local community in the excitement of new scientific possibilities. Will it be “Lewis” and “Clark” leading the way? The public is invited to choose.