Using Automation to Combat Lab Contamination

Combat Lab Contamination

Few things are as important in the world of scientific research as maintaining the integrity of your experiment and keeping lab personnel safe. One of the biggest challenges scientists face in the field is laboratory contamination – from biological agents like viruses and fungi to chemical cross-contamination from accidentally transferring one substance to another (such as by using the same pipette for two processes). There are many issues that can arise from contamination within the lab. While the simplest issue with this is misleading results and wasted effort, more dangerous issues are compromised safety, leading to illness, death, or even an entire public health crisis. Labs working at Biosafety Levels 3 and 4 (BSL-3 and BSL-4) are particularly at risk since they handle highly infectious agents.

Some of the most significant sources of contamination in these high-contaminant facilities are procedural failures, equipment malfunctions, and material transfers. For example, autoclaves can become major sources of failure if they’re not maintained properly or if they malfunction. Since these devices are essential to sterilizing materials, errors can result in incomplete sterilization or even cross-contamination.

The biggest contaminants found in wet labs include:

  • Foreign DNA/RNA/Protein molecules
  • DNA/RNAse proteins that degrade DNA/RNA
  • Endotoxins from shed gram-negative bacterial walls
  • Mycoplasma (fungus)
  • Spilled chemicals like PFA and buffers

One solution to address this major issue in labs is the introduction of automation, which can reduce the chances of human error. Automated systems can closely adhere to specific protocols and make decontamination processes even more effective. One great example is automated pipetting systems, which can prevent sample-to-sample contamination and precise liquid handling. Hamilton STARs and other liquid handlers’ use of disposable tips helps remove sample cross-contamination since the same tip never reaches the sample twice.

Another example is enclosed robotic systems for handling samples, which minimize exposure to airborne contaminants. While human-operated systems have more potential for contamination through human error, and non-enclosed robotic systems have more potential for contamination from the open environment, enclosed robotic systems minimize each of these issues. Research has shown that these enclosed systems can reduce the chance of environmental contamination by up to 40%. Additionally, automated sterilization units ensure that equipment and workspaces are fully and consistently decontaminated using repeatable cycles. This saves time and effort as it eliminates the need for manual checks.

Automation’s role in safety and reliability in laboratory environments maintains experimental integrity and keeps workers safe. According to a research study by the University of Lebanon, 45.4% of accidents in the lab occur from inhalation. Using infrared spectroscopy to detect hazardous gasses within bench tops is one way to reduce this risk, especially by installing automated infrared lasers above lab benches. With AI, these devices can be even more specific, trained to notice specific gas types and alarm lab operators about the particular danger.

Labs can leverage automation to manage risks associated with high-consequence pathogens. By using this new technology to our advantage, we can continue making scientific advancements without compromising safety and integrity. Strategic implementation of lab automation technologies is a robust approach to reducing contamination risks in biosafety facilities. For more information about the specific causes of cross-contamination in biosafety facilities and the use of automation in labs, see this article from Getinge.

About the Author

Ainur earned her bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from OSU and has spent the majority of her career in sterile rooms and wet labs. Her early career as a process engineer found her in Genentech, where she developed the skills essential to develop further in her career. She then moved to LA to earn her master’s degree in Computer Science, learning how to combine biotechnology with computer science. This opened doors to several other opportunities for her, giving her prestigious roles at leading companies like Hexagon Bio, Guardant Health, and Personalis.

At Guardant Health, Ainur supported over 100 Hamilton STARs/STARlets liquid handling robots on her Service Engineering team. At Personalis, she automated DNA/RNA sequencing preparation, using her expertise with Hamilton STARs and the Mantis microfluidic dispenser to process over 300,000 human genomes per year. At Hexagon Bio, she combined all of these skills to develop over 50 new methods for drug discovery and help over 40 Ph.D. scientists automate methods in proteomics, cancer drug discovery, and genomics.


Nasrallah IM, El Kak AK, Ismaiil LA, Nasr RR, Bawab WT. Prevalence of Accident Occurrence Among Scientific Laboratory Workers of the Public University in Lebanon and the Impact of Safety Measures. Saf Health Work. 2022 Jun;13(2):155-162. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2022 Feb 19. PMID: 35664908; PMCID: PMC9142354.

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