The Microplate

The microtiter plate, now conveniently called ''microplate'' or ''plate,'' deserves a special mention with respect to laboratory automation. In many respects it has been a major determinant of the direction of many products and solutions. And although chip-based technologies are rapidly gaining ground, the microplate will remain to play a prominent role in biopharmaceutical research. The microplate itself is lab automation. It introduced a concept of multiple reaction vessels that could be or needed to be treated in parallel. Rather than manipulating single vessels, a single container with a high density of vessels could be manipulated. This parallelization concept certainly contributed to the success of robotic systems and automated workstations.

The microplate has also been a standard for equipment development. Although the 96-well microplate has only recently been standardized (Society of Biomolecular Screening task force for ''Standards in Automation and Instrumentation''), its physical dimensions and characteristics have always been roughly identical. The standardization was primarily required for enhanced reliability in today's automated environment. Recently, the 384-well plate also was standardized (Society of Biomolecular Screening task force ''Standards in Automation and Instrumentation'').

Apart from the 96- and 384-well microplates, there are no other microplate standards. The higher density plate formats (864-, 1536-, 3456-, and 9600-well plates) serve an important need to reduce assay costs by reducing the assay volume. The higher density also helps to increase throughput, although throughput is also determined by the speed of liquid handling devices and microplate readers. No standard is available for 1536-well plates. This may become a major issue, since the well-to-well distance is considerably smaller, and unacceptable tolerances may lead to difficulties in centering the wells (required for accurate pipetting and to obtain a high-quality signal during reading).

Although seldom thought of in the light of laboratory automation, the microplate is to be considered an important form of automation because it introduced a high degree of parallelization of reaction vessels. It is the most important platform for the development of standards that are available today in biopharma-ceutical research.

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