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The Hot Zone
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Summer 2000
The Hot Zone
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It was his AIDS research that got him thinking about the need for automated laboratories. Simple genetics, he explains, suggests that among the 30 to 50 million humans infected with the HIV virus, there might be as many as a billion different variations of the viral genome. Researchers have little or no idea about how those variations are related, how infectious they are, how they diverge from each other or even how different variations manifest themselves as disease - in other words, little idea about what Layne calls "the big picture" and no technological means to gather the data to decipher that picture. "And now we're hoping to develop a vaccine," Layne says, "and there's no guarantee that a vaccine for one strain will be portable to other strains. We have very, very little organized information on any of this."

So Layne took to studying automated means to analyze thousands of viral samples, which brought him to the literature on automated laboratories and robotics and that led him to Beugelsdijk, who was not only an editor of the Journal of Laboratory Robotics but ran the robotics program at Los Alamos and had been building automated and robotic laboratories for a decade. Along the way, Beugelsdijk had built robots to handle radioactive material and automated labs to do chromosome mapping for the human-genome project and environmental sampling for characterizing toxic-waste dumps. In 1995, Layne called Beugelsdijk cold. "I called him up," Layne says, "and I said I found out about him by reading about automation and robotics in these various journals, and here's what my problem is, and did he want to keep talking?" And talk they did. (Beugelsdijk says this is one of the more noteworthy aspects of Layne's character: "He will cold-call anyone," he says, "and he's comfortable doing it, whether it's senators, Nobel laureates or the presidents of corporations.")

At the time, Beugelsdijk and his robotics group had been the driving force behind the creation of what are known as standardized laboratory modules. Each of these modules would perform a particular task in a laboratory and any combination could be put together into a fully automated laboratory. Beugelsdijk calls it the laboratory equivalent of "plug-and-play." Layne likes to call it "LegoLab." Each of these automated labs could do the work of hundreds of human technicians and, through e-mail and the Internet, could be utilized by diverse researchers, working anywhere in the world. "You can send off 1,000 samples," says Layne, "and then instruct the lab to do the necessary tests. You don't have to know the details of how the lab works. You only have to know what tests to perform and what scientific questions you need to ask."

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