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One-Armed Robots Master Immortality

17 November 2003

The Children of the 90s project based at the University of Bristol is about to enter a new era of medical research, thanks to two robots who have mastered the art of immortality – at least for blood cells.

The Children of the 90s project based at the University of Bristol is about to enter a new era of medical research, thanks to two robots who have mastered the art of immortality – at least for blood cells.

The one-armed robots, called The Germinator and Robobanker, are about to start work in a new DNA bank and Population Genetics laboratory built in the shell of the old Bristol Children’s Hospital.

On Monday (November 17), the two children who came up with the names for the new robots will be invited to ceremonially switch them on - and see for themselves how their DNA will help future generations of children.

The other guest of honour on the day will be Martin Bobrow, Professor of Medical Genetics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge and a governor of the Wellcome Trust which, with the University of Bristol, has funded the new labs.

The robots and the laboratories have been designed to provide an unlimited supply of DNA from 10,000 children and their mothers. No other study in the world has such a large DNA collection from a normal population – or such a sophisticated system for growing human cell lines.

The laboratories mark an important new phase for Children of the 90s – also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

Over the last 12 years the study has collected half a million biological samples from parents and children, everything from placentas to milk teeth.

They are still an invaluable source of information for future research. But with the advent of the Human Genome project, and the progress made in identifying genetic variations, the Bristol scientists realised they would need a constant supply of DNA.

“The amount of DNA currently in the ALSPAC bank is sufficient for us to analyse about 500 genes,” says Dr Richard Jones, Head of ALSPAC’s biological samples.

“But our worry is that with 30,000 human genes and the discovery of more and more common genetic variants, we will start to run out of DNA.”

The solution - to make “immortalised” cell lines from blood cells collected from the Children of the 90s.

Thirty years ago it was discovered that if white blood cells or lymphocytes were separated from a blood sample and then infected with a virus in the laboratory, the infected cells would grow indefinitely.

Because these cells do not die, they are described as immortalised – and they provide ALSPAC researchers with a never-ending supply of DNA to be analysed and then compared with our database. Dr. Jones says it is opening up a new field of discovery.

“Working out the interplay between genetic and non-genetic influences on the growth and development of normal children from the womb into adult life is the key to understanding, and therefore preventing or treating, common disease.

“We have known for some time that half of the cause of many common health problems is genetic. However, while progress on non-genetic effects has been made, it is only now that we can start to fill in the genetic component, and then start to unravel the complex paths that lead to much ill health.

“Studies like Children of the 90s, which combine genetic and nongenetic measurements and are able to follow children as they grow up, will play a vital role in this process of discovery, and should lead to new ways of preventing and treating disease.”


Robot 1 The Germinator grows the tissue by taking white blood cells which are then exposed to Epstein Barr Virus, automatically fed and incubated and put into storage.

Robot 2, Robobanker extracts, orders and delivers DNA samples for analysis by research scientists.

The names were suggested by children in a Name Our Robots competition, based on original cartoons of the robots. The cartoons are available for publication.

ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed the children and parents in minute detail ever since.

For information on the Wellcome Trust see


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