Emma Chory, Ph.D., of MIT Takes Top SLAS Innovation Award for Presentation on Phage and Robotics-Assisted Directed Evolution

For Immediate Release

Boston, MA (February 15, 2022) – Emma Chory, Ph.D., an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow in the MIT Media Lab & Department of Biological Engineering was the 2022 recipient of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening’s Innovation Award, the society’s annual scientific presentation honor. Chory excelled over eight other award finalists with her presentation on Phase-and-Robotics-Assisted Directed Evolution at the SLAS 2022 International Conference and Exhibition in Boston, Feb. 5-9.

"I’m completely blown away by the reception to our work, the response from the SLAS community, and so grateful for all the scientists and engineers who have engaged with this project (especially my co-authors!),” Chory said. “Over the years, SLAS has defined what it means to create next-generation science, so to be deemed “innovative” in that context holds a particularly high honor. Our open-source robot integration and high-throughput directed evolution platforms aren’t just about increasing throughput or speed, but about enabling entirely new types of experiments and questions that weren’t previously possible. Sometimes as an academic, automation can feel like a luxury reserved for streamlining processes rather than answering questions, so I hope this award inspires other basic scientists to tackle new (and old) questions from entirely different angles."

Chory’s presentation detailed the development of two systems, which enable the autonomous, robust, and data-responsive evolution of biomolecules in high-throughput by 1) expanding the experimental repertoire of liquid-handling systems and 2) applying these systems to questions in biomolecular engineering and evolutionary phenomena. The presentation described her team’s development of the Pyhamilton platform, an open-source, flexible Python-based automation platform, which enables entirely new applications for Hamilton liquid-handling robots. With these platform modifications, Chory and her co-authors, Erika DeBenedictis, Dana Gretton, Brian Wang, Stefan Golas, and principal investigator Kevin Esvelt, further enhanced the platform to a phage-and-robotics assisted near-continuous evolution (PRANCE), which provides the opportunity to answer fundamental questions in evolutionary biology, recapitulate naturally occurring environmental changes and simulate perturbations to these environments—all within the laboratory.

Though many of these phenomena have been investigated in whole-organism evolution, they have never been experimentally tested and shown to apply to the directed evolution of gene-encoded biomolecules within the laboratory. These capabilities have implications for the understanding of pathogenic escape mutations relevant to global health. “We demonstrate the ability to systematically explore evolutionary outcomes across many populations that may help resolve controversial questions in evolutionary biology, such as the friction between “determinism” -- the assertion that evolutionary fate is predetermined, and “contingency” -- the notion that evolutionary outcomes are contingent on specific historical events,” Chory stated in her presentation abstract.

Collectively, this work creates a new paradigm for the autonomous engineering of biomolecules and enables previously inaccessible, well-controlled scientific experiments to highlight the fundamental principles of gene-level evolution.

SLAS’s Innovation Award recognizes one podium presentation that demonstrates exceedingly innovative contributions to the exploration of technologies in the laboratory; work that exceeds a benchmark or milestone in screening or the lead discovery process or demonstrates an advanced and integrated use of mature technologies. A panel of judges considers the impact of the work on life sciences and technology; originality and creativity of the research; the quality of the science; and the individuals’ oral presentation content and skills. The winner receives a $10,000 cash prize, the opportunity to publish in one of SLAS’s peer-reviewed open access journals (SLAS Discovery or SLAS Technology) and will be featured in an SLAS New Matter podcast, an Electronic Laboratory Neighborhood feature on the SLAS website and ongoing publicity.


SLAS held its flagship SLAS2022 International Conference and Exhibition in Boston, MA, February 5-9, after conducting a fully virtual conference in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 5,200 scientists, academicians, technology providers and business leaders attended the hybrid annual conference, which includes an expansive educational program focused on life sciences discovery and technology. The Exhibition portion of the conference hosted more than 300 leading companies and startups from around the world and showcases the latest in technologies for the life sciences. Approximately 10% of the 5,200 registered attendees participated virtually.

SLAS (the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening) is an international community of more than 19,000 individual scientists, engineers, researchers, technologists and related professionals from academic, government and commercial research laboratories. The SLAS mission is to be the preeminent global organization providing forums for education and information exchange and to encourage the study of, and improve the practice of, life sciences discovery and technology. For more information, visit www.SLAS.org. For more information visit www.SLAS.org or contact SLAS Global Headquarters at +1.877.990.SLAS (5727) or e-mail slas@slas.org.


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