Friday, May 29, 2009


Unhealthy habits in Molecular Biology laboratories: learning to separate lunch-time from research-time

Karl Kurtz
Deutsche Kommissionen für Gutten Habiten im Researchen, Pönensieguanten, Germany.

Experimental research in Molecular Biology laboratories has always been characterised by the utilisation of a large amount of weird reagents which constitute a threat for human health. These products are usually of chemical or biological nature, and their effects range from death-causative illnesses, such as cancer, to other lesser nuisances such as uncomfortable attacks of diarrhoea or irreversible staining of personal clothes. A methodical and painstaking observation of laboratory security procedures is absolutely crucial for the healthy and correct development of research. In this short assay, I shall document the main bad habits commonly observed in Molecular Biology laboratories, and provide some simple and useful recommendations regarding laboratory safety practices. The major concerns of researchers in terms of lab security seem to be completely focused on the manipulation of ethidium bromide (see bitesizebio). The rest of chemicals, such as methanol, phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride or sodium azide are happily handled as if they were innocuous. A common but non-advisable practice often seen in many labs is the use of methanol as a substitute for ethanol in the preparation of energetic beverages, such as the half-morning carajillo (coffeecognac) or the solysombra (sunandshadow). The habit of baking bread (with lunching or almuerzing purposes, of course) with strains of yeast used for research, although undoubtedly money- and time-saving for research fellows, may not be completely secure. It is nowadays common to find incubators filled with baguettes and ciabattas resting aside Petri plates. The proximity of other microorganisms such as bacteria in this kind of incubators is probably the cause of colitis found in the labs were these habits exist. Other apparently harmless uses of laboratory material, like boiling potatoes in such devices as those used to denature protein preparations (commonly rich in 2-mercaptoethanol or other stinky reducing agents) are strongly discouraged, unless for decoration purposes of otherwise healthily-prepared dishes (e.g. complementing Russian salad or Bratwurst). A similar practice is often found involving the preparation of lunch (e.g. heating of home-made Spanish omelette or other egg-derived products; see CurrRevol 04/16/2009) in microwaves which are also used for melting agarose solutions that contain ethidium bromide. Given this short summary of unhealthy habits, which surely does not cover the whole spectra of dangerous vices and manipulations in Molecular Biology research premises, we recommend that hereafter researchers simply continue working in their labs as usual, but observing the rule of covering themselves in a clean lab coat, gloves and mask when going out to public spaces and private homes. That may be the easiest way to avoid the spreading of genetically manipulated organisms, harmful chemicals and other bizarre products by researchers from the place where these fellows should always be confined: the laboratories.

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