The goal isn't to keep people calm- the goal is to not die. Keeping
people calm is a nice plus, of course. Here's how I've been thinking
of implementing assistance in safety guidelines in general.
Standaridzed protocols transmitted over the web-- such as my pcr.xml
example- have information about what tools and equipment is involved,
as well as various chemicals. Most chemicals that you use in a common
lab setting are going to have information in the MSDS database, which
stands for "Material Safety Datasheet". Material safety and equipment
safety is really just one aspect of safety, there are many others when
it comes to biological materials. But, in general, imagine the ability
to automatically print out documentation on what to do in case
something goes wrong, or documentation to show anybody that wants to
do a walk-through of a lab just what's going on or contigency plans,
or documentation just for yourself on how to carry out clean-ups of
common spills, etc. This information is vital. I don't think it's an
issue of making sure people are following some arbitrary set of rules,
but rather providing them with the tools to do better.
For the record, as well as loving Red Dwarf, I’m a huge fan of
MacGyver, the TV secret agent who could build any device from everyday
items found in the room.
You name it…he could build it in 60 seconds or less using only the
chewing gum and dental floss found in his pocket, escape impending
demise, and have enough time left over to catch the bad guy as well.
As a result, one of my favorite things in the world is to be like
MacGyver and figure out a cheaper or faster way to make or do
something useful using everyday items.
So here is my top ten list of favorite lab MacGyverisms; ways to use
everyday items to make gadgets and low-tech solutions for the lab that
I’ve accumulated over my many years of working as a lab rat and
writing tech articles.
10. Scoops or Measuring Cups = no more weighing. Do you weigh out
yeast extract, NaCl, and agar for each bottle when preparing media?
Save time by weighing the amount of powder that fits in a measuring
cup or scoop and then adjust the volume of media in each of your
Designate one scoop for each powder added and just put one scoop of
each per bottle. Weigh once…scoop forever after.
9. Straws = free pasteur pipettes. Plastic straws lifted from
fast-food chains can be used for dilutions and innoculations. This may
take some experimentation, but I have done this for making hundreds of
innoculations for a screening assay without ever having to buy
expensive plastic pipettes.
Of all the varieties I tested, McD straws are the best and will
actually survive autoclaving (wrapped in bunches of 20 inside aluminum
The trick is to use a consistent size test tube for dilutions and
adjust the volume so that, when the straw is placed into the tube,
almost exactly 0.5-1.0 ml ends up in the straw.
You then place your finger over the open end and transfer the liquid.
To release the payload, take your finger off the top.
In a similar vein, don’t forget about toothpicks or wooden stir sticks
for replica plating.
8. Spaghetti Colander = no more dropped gels. Instead of using a
spatula to move your gels from stain to rinse solutions and risk
dropping your gel on the floor (butter-side down, of course), use a
small plastic colander fitted inside of a bowl, and several bowls of
the same size for the washes. That way you can just pick up the
colander and move it to the next wash station.
7. Body wash or shampoo = cheap blot washes. Cheap liquid soap can be
used for washings. Shampoo contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and can
substitute for expensive wash solutions in many types of blots.
Don’t forget that you can use zip-loc baggies instead of a seal-a-meal
for hybs too. To get all the air bubbles out, place a hollow stir
straw in the corner and make sure all the bubbles go out the straw as
you zip it up. Then slide the straw out while you cinch up the last
6. Instant Milk = long life blocking agent. Powdered milk or cream
liquor can be used as a casein-enriched blocking agent for your blots.
It may not be any cheaper to use Bailey’s Blotting Juice, but there is
an obvious added advantage, plus you never have any stale leftovers.
5. Petroleum Jelly = super-cheap hot start. ‘A little dab’ll do ya’ to
“hot start” your Polymerase Chain Reactions. [see Horton et al, 1994]
4. Coffee Grinder = personal minifuge. You can use an old coffee
grinder as a mini-centrifuge by modifying it to have rings for holding
two eppendorf tubes for quick spins. An old-fashioned hand crank mixer
or egg beater also works for this application.
If you use duct tape (not on the list since it is so obvious!) to hold
it on a C-clamp, you can screw it onto the lab bench in any convenient
3. Toothpaste = DIY miniprep matrix. Some brands of toothpaste contain
diatomacieous earth (Celite) as an abrasive. I’ve not tried this
myself, but rumor has it that you can separate out the particles and
use them as a matrix for binding DNA in mini-preps.
2. Furniture polish = fresh-smelling and silanized plates. Instead of
using Rain-X for silanizing glass plates for polyacrylamide gels, use
furniture polish. Spray on, wipe off. You also gain points for doing
all the lab benches along the way, and extra credit for using the
lemon scented variety to freshen up the place.
And the number one low-tech gizmo of all-time is…
1. Record player = shaking incubator. Bob Horton’s homemade shaking
incubator was fashioned out of an old-time record player. The plans
were originally posted to the bionet methods and reagents bulletin
board and highlighted in my monthly column in TiBS under the subtitle
“Spin Doctor” [see Hengen, 1996].A classic MacGyverism.
So what ingenious low-tech solutions do you use in your lab?
1. Horton RM, Hoppe BL, Conti-Tronconi BM. 1994. AmpliGrease: “hot
start” PCR using petroleum jelly. Biotechniques 16:42-43.
2. Hengen PN. 1996. Methods and reagents. Eliminating banding
artifacts from SDS-PAGE. Trends in Biochemical Sciences 21:191-193.
When I'm working with facultative anaerobes, I create a CO2-rich
environment in a ziplock baggie. Here's how.
- 2L soda bottle, empty
- Latex balloon with a neck wide enough to stretch over the mouth of
the soda bottle
- Funnel, spoon or small lab-type spatula
- Baking soda
- Quart-size ziplock baggie
- Jumbo paper clip or screw-type hose clamp
- Petri dish, already loaded with agar and inoculated with your specimen
1. Pour somewhere between 250 and 500 mL of vinegar into the soda bottle.
2. Fill the latex balloon about half-full of baking soda. You can do
this by sticking the neck of the funnel into the balloon and pouring
baking soda in (you may need to ram it through with a pen or
something, since it's clumpy), or picking up baking soda with the
spoon/spatula and shoving it into the balloon (you will likely spill
baking soda, but it works).
3. Stretch the neck of the balloon over the mouth of the bottle so
that you get a good airtight seal.
4. Hold the body of the balloon upright and shake all the baking soda
into the bottle. The vinegar and baking soda react to evolve carbon
dioxide, and the balloon will fill up.
5. Clamp the neck of the balloon with the jumbo paper clip or hose
clamp, as far from the mouth of the balloon as possible. Leave it on
the bottle for now.
6. Put your petri dish into the ziplock baggie, upside-down, and set
it all on a flat surface. Flatten the baggie as much as possible.
7. Close the ziplock baggie except for a small opening, just wide
enough to admit the neck of the balloon.
8. Detach the inflated balloon from the bottle, taking care to keep it
9. Insert the mouth of the balloon as far into the ziplock baggie as you can.
10. Carefully remove the clamp from the balloon. You may not want to
unclamp it all the way. Hold the balloon in one hand and keep your
other hand on the baggie so that the gas doesn't force them apart.
11. When the baggie is completely inflated, quickly slip the balloon
out and close the little opening in the baggie. Make sure the baggie
is fully sealed.
12. Being careful to support the baggie from beneath so that the petri
dish doesn't come open, pick up the baggie/dish apparatus and place it
in your incubator.
I haven't tested this with obligate anaerobes yet, but with
facultative anaerobes, it works great! You will want to check it
periodically (once or twice a day) to make sure that the baggie hasn't