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To determine functions of the genes in question, the experiments used "knockout" varieties in which a specific gene is removed. By determining how the yeast sample grows, the function of the missing gene can be determined.
In the automated experiments, the researchers first developed a mathematical model showing how various genes, proteins and enzymes and growth mediums interact.
Armed with that knowledge, the robot independently generated hypotheses about the missing genes, then used equipment to grow yeast strains. Later they evaluated the growth of each strain against its original hypothesis. The process was repeated over and over as the system developed new hypotheses based on the accumulating data.
"It's like if you have a machine which is broken, the system can automatically reason to find all the possible ways it can be broken," said Ross King of the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. "Some philosophers have thought this is impossible for computers because that's the imaginative leap."
The robot scientist uses a type of reasoning called abduction. King said it is the kind of reasoning police use to reconcile clues when investigating a crime.