They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. When the University of Kentucky’s Advanced Genetic Technologies Center was preparing to surplus an aging liquid handling robot, the DeBolt lab at UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment saw an opportunity to bolster their research capabilities.

“We were able to get this amazing piece of equipment for free,” said Victoria Pook, a Post-Doctoral Scholar working in the DeBolt lab. “Although it’s over 15 years old, the technology is sound and it does exactly what we need it to do.”

As Co-Investigator on Kentucky NSF EPSCoR’s 5-year, $20 Million Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-1 Award from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Seth DeBolt leads the project’s Chemical Biology for Advanced Materials Research Pillar.

One of the preliminary goals of this research pillar is to explore a chemical library of 50,000 compounds in search of unique small molecules that impact plant structure. Specifically, this pillar is searching for molecules that stimulate the production of lignin, an energy-rich organic polymer that forms important structural materials in the support tissues of vascular plants and some algae. If this team can identify molecules that increase lignin production in plants, they may be able to develop a new energy-dense feedstock, which can be later converted into biofuels.

“It allows us to deal with a much larger project than we could possibly do by hand alone.”

As the DeBolt lab continues their quest in search of unique, lignin promoting molecules, the newly acquired liquid handling robot is helping the team sift through an enormous, 50,000 chemical library at an accelerated rate.

“When you’re dealing with 50,000 compounds and lots of different screens, it would just take months and months for us to do it by hand,” Pook explained. “So it allows us to deal with a much larger project than we could possibly do by hand alone.”

Pook and Graduate Student, Kirtley Amos, helped manage the logistical challenges of transporting, assembling and installing the robot.

“At one point, it was quite funny,” Amos laughed. “We had a pretty expensive piece of equipment rolling around on a lab cart. So that was a sight. The hardware setup, as well as the software setup was a lot of wall-to-head collisions, but it all turned out alright.”

“The robot is helping us sift through this 50,000 compound library at an expedited rate. There are 625 plates that we work with, there’s 80 compounds per plate, and to do all that by hand would be quite tedious.”

Kentucky NSF EPSCoR is currently providing funding to support salaries for both Pook and Amos while they work on this project, as well as the necessary materials and supplies associated with their work. To date, the team has already screened 10,000 compounds, with more than a dozen small molecules found to be capable of altering lignin composition in plants. For 2017, the team aims to identify 50 lignification-inducing small molecules.

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