EMERYVILLE, CALIFORNIA—If this is the biology laboratory of the future, it doesn’t look so different from today’s. Scientists in white lab coats walk by with boxes of frozen tubes. The chemicals on the shelves—bottles of pure alcohol, bins of sugar, protein, and salts—are standard issue for growing microbes and manipulating their genes. You don’t even notice the robots until you hear them: They sound like crickets singing to each other amid the low roar of fans.
The robots work for Zymergen, a biotechnology company that moved into this former electronics factory on the eastern shore of California’s San Francisco Bay in 2014. They spend their days carrying out experiments on microbes, searching for ways to increase the production of useful chemicals. Here’s one called Echo. Nestled within a blocky jumble of equipment, a robotic arm grabs a plastic block dimpled with hundreds of tiny wells carrying liquid. A laser scans a barcode on the block’s side before Echo loads it into a tray. What happens next is too subtle for the human eye to perceive.
“This isn’t a replica of how I would do pipetting with my hand,” says one of the company’s co-founders, Jed Dean, a molecular biologist and vice president of operations and engineering. “It’s an entirely different way of doing it.” Instead of using a pipette to suck up and squirt microliters of liquid into each well—a tidal wave of volume on the cellular scale—the robot never touches it. Instead, 500 times per second, a pulse of sound waves causes the liquid itself to ripple and launch a droplet a thousand times smaller than one a human can transfer.