In the 1980s, Joe Jaklevic founded the Engineering Division's Bioinstrumentation Group to relieve the drudgery of doing molecular biology.
Biologists accustomed to selecting and moving thousands of colonies of bacteria with a toothpick welcomed the automated "colony picker," a robot that mimicked their actions (sans toothpick) quickly, tirelessly, and without mistakes.
Many biological studies use multiwell plates, which are often handled by robots one at a time. But Jaklevic's group modeled their belt-driven system on Henry Ford's assembly line, moving many plates swiftly through a series of steps. Their approach has been widely used in basic research and widely copied commercially.
The group was among the first to automate the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a powerful method for amplifying tiny amounts of DNA; well known for amplifying traces of DNA found at crime scenes, PCR is more important as a tool for fundamental biological research. The Bioinstrumentation Group's patented device increased productivity tenfold over conventional methods.
In the standard method of sequencing DNA, a strand is cut into pieces that end in one of four different bases, the four letters of the genetic code. Different lengths are separated as they are drawn through a gel by an electric field; the sequence is read from the positions of the segments.
The manual process uses large slabs of gel and takes hours. In the early 1990s, Jaklevic and his group were the first to demonstrate a fully automated "capillary electrophoresis" system: with bundles of thin capillaries, higher electric fields can be applied to many small samples, speeding the procedure by orders of magnitude.