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A robot scientist: with out humans

A robot scientist that can generate its own hypotheses and run experiments to test them has made its first real scientific discoveries. Dubbed Adam, the robot is the handiwork of researchers at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge in the UK. All by itself it discovered new functions for a number of genes in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, aka brewer's yeast. Ross King, a computational biologist at Aberystwyth, who leads the project, said that Adam's results were modest, but real. "It's certainly a contribution to knowledge. It would be publishable," he says. Adam, which actually consists of a small roomful of lab equipment, has four personal computers that act as a brain, and possesses robot arms, cameras, liquid handlers, incubators and other equipment. The team gave the robot a freezer containing a library of thousands of mutant strains of yeast with individual genes deleted. It was also equipped with a database containing information about yeast genes, enzymes, and metabolism, and a supply of hundreds of metabolites. To discover which genes coded for which enzymes, Adam cultured a mutant yeast with a certain gene knocked out, and monitored how well the mutant grew without a particular metabolite. If the strain grew poorly without the metabolite, Adam learned something about the function of the knocked out gene. The robot could carry out more than 1000 of these experiments a day. In all, Adam formulated and tested 20 hypotheses about genes coding for 13 enzymes. Twelve hypotheses were confirmed. For instance, Adam correctly hypothesised that three genes it identified encode an enzyme important in producing the amino acid lysine. The researchers confirmed Adam's work with their own experiments. The team is now working on a new robot, called Eve, which will search for new drugs.

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