A multi-application microarray robot for agri-food research, industrial biotechnology and on-chip manufacturing

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Natural Sciences & Env Sciences


We are seeking funding to acquire a microarray robot for bioscience research. These machines are in effect printers that instead of ink, print biological samples in the form of spots on a surface such as a slide or membrane. The power of microarrays and their value to life science research is immense because entire libraries of molecules from complex biological systems can be represented in the form of tens of thousands of spots in an area no bigger than a postage stamp. With these arrayed libraries, we can explore interactions between molecules, test for biological activities, screen for new drugs and discover new enzymes. This technology was first applied to nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), but microarrays are now used for research into proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and small molecules. The technology is especially powerful for deciphering interaction networks between genes and proteins and for large scale screening of antibodies, enzymes and other bio-molecules. Furthermore, the latest generation of microarray robots are also advanced manufacturing devices capable of fabricating sensors and assays and can be used for performing multiplexed (many simultaneously) microscale experiments in-situ within the controlled environment of the machine. The equipment that we are requesting will be custom manufactured with bespoke features that greatly enhance its capacity and versatility, by a globally-leading UK company. By embedding this equipment within a new Biosystems Engineering unit at Newcastle University, we will create a truly world-class microarray technology hub that will accelerate research in food security, bioenergy and industrial biotechnology and health bioscience. By working with locally based but globally active industry partners we will use this equipment to drive translational research towards commercialisation. The equipment will also ensure that a new generation of UK students will have access to state-of-the-art technology, bringing a lasting legacy of research benefits.

Technical Summary

We are applying for the latest generation of microarray robot that represents a step-change in the speed, accuracy and quality of bio-printing. Rather than an off-the-shelf machine, our application is for a customised robot developed to our requirements after consultation with academic and industry partners by the world-leading manufacturer of this equipment, Arrayjet, based in Roslin near Edinburgh. Several bespoke features that support the diverse applications of the user group will greatly enhance the robot's versatility and value for money. The machine will have a unique interchangeable tray system (the component that holds the material onto which arrays are printed), which can accommodate not just slides, but membranes and MALDI plates, held in position by a vacuum. We have also specified the Iris (TM) spot monitoring system consisting of twin cameras mounted on either side of the print head that captures images within 300ms of sample deposition. Images are processed in real time, detecting the presence of missing spots, artefacts, merged or misaligned features. No other microarrayer type has this system and it will provide us with an unprecedented level of quality control. The Jetmosphere (TM) environment control system regulates temperature and humidity with the machine, cooling to 5 oC below ambient, with an operating range of 15-25 oC and enabling in-situ multiplexed experiments under desired conditions. The requested equipment will be used for fundamental and applied applications related to nutrition, agri-diagnostics, enzyme discovery, plant and algal biology, industrial biotechnology and protein chemistry. These diverse projects, which are all linked by the need for high throughput capacity that microarrays provide, include: wholegrain analysis; multiplexed lateral flow assay (LFA) agri-diagnostic devices; enzyme discovery; new tools for microarray data integration; label-free drug discovery; understanding carbohydrate processing by soil microbiomes.

Planned Impact

Our overall impact goal is to create a truly world-leading research hub for microarray-enabled research, globally visible, accessible to a wide range of users and characterised by innovation and creativity using the best equipment in the world. Beneficiaries of this hub in the short, mid and long term include local, national and international academics, industry partners, technicians, and a new generation of young researchers trained in the latest technology. These researchers will benefit from this enabling technology because of the greatly increased analytical capacity it provides: entire libraries of molecules from complex biological can be represented in the form of tens of thousands of spots in high-density arrays. With these arrays, researchers can interrogate interactions between molecules, test for biological activities, and screen for new drugs and discover new enzymes. Also, the machine we are requesting is an advanced manufacturing device capable of fabricating sensors and assays and can be used for performing multiplexed microscale experiments in-situ within controlled environments. In the short term (during the 12 month award period), the equipment will directly benefit an already defined local user group (academics within Newcastle and Northumbria Universities) and industrial partners who have provided detailed descriptions of projects) for projects, which are reliant on microarray technology to make a step change in analytical capacity change or an innovative leap into a new application area (see case for support and letters of support). To ensure that the microarray hub is operational and widely accessible we will train technical staff and be proactive in promoting visibility and the research benefits of the equipment via workshops, seminars, a database and publications. Once the hub is fully operational we will consolidate impact and build legacy of this investment. Training and teaching will be an important impact delivery mechanism and we aim to be the globally leading centre of microarray training excellence. Our two older machines, plus the new one requested will provide us with an unrivalled capacity for providing hands on experience for students and experienced researchers. Exposure to microarrays will be at both undergraduate and post graduate levels and by training a new generation of young scientists, we will secure a lasting legacy in microarray technology. Training at the PhD level will be delivered via our participation in the Liverpool-Durham-Newcastle BBSRC DTP and membership of the Institute for Agri-Food Research and Innovation (an existing cohort of 22 PhD students, growing to 34 by 2021). Longer term impact can only be delivered by extending funding and the new equipment will provide us with a significant new offering to academic and industry led projects via UKRI, EU and private foundation calls. For example, an application based largely on microarray work ('3DGLYCO' - advanced sustainable cleaning solutions) and led by P&G is already under advanced planning for submission as an Innovate UK proposal in 2019. Based on his track record in delivering impact from microarray work, Prof Willats has been invited as a partner on the Horizon 2020 application 'Discovery and characterization of FUcan active eNzymes' (Led by Dr Mirjam Czjzek, Station Biologique de Roscoff, submission 2019) and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund proposal ('MinChem', Transforming Food Production, led by Prof. Neil Boonham, Newcastle University, submission 2019). We recently obtained an award of £30,000 from the Northern Accelerator for commercialisation of microarray-based agri-diagnostic sensors via a spin-out ('AgriInnovations'). A development consultancy firm experienced in bridging technologies to global markets has been hired to do this (IVO Associates, Dr Dennis Camilleri).


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