Biochemistry is just like cooking… but try not to eat it

When I started my PhD, I was told that if you could follow the recipe in a cookbook, you could successfully carry out most experiments (success being measured here by a lack of spilling/breaking/wasting/ruining/blowing up anything, rather than by the experiment actually working AND giving you the result you hoped for).This is because experiments normally follow a specific protocol, which is fundamentally the same as following a recipe. However, the more I’ve worked in a lab, the more I’ve seen the similarities with a kitchen… So here are some of the regular day-to-day kitchen things used commonly in the lab:

Cling film & Tin foil

Both cling film and tin foil are used on a daily basis – although special lab versions are available, normal supermarket brand versions are used a lot. Cling film is used for pretty much the same thing in labs as in the kitchen – to wrap things up for storage, to stop contamination, spillages, and evaporation. Tin foil is used to keep light out of things that may degrade in light – for example, when working with fluorescent tags and antibodies, the experiment will be kept under tin foil to prevent fading of the fluorescent signal.

Fridge freezer

The success of many an experiment is down to proper storage of your samples, and everything needs a different storage temperature. While the lab has fancy freezers set at -80˚C for RNA and long term sample storage, as well as liquid nitrogen dewars for cryopreserving cells at around -200˚C, there are also regular old fridge freezers. Fridges are set to +4˚C and are used for short term storage of DNA, some antibodies and various chemicals and reagents. Freezers are set to -20˚C, and are used to store all kinds of things, including protein samples, DNA and antibodies.

Microwave

There’s not much to say about this one! In the lab the microwave is used to heat up and melt things, although very rarely would those things ever be considered edible.

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Milk

Marvel skimmed milk powder in particular is a laboratory favourite. It is most commonly used to make up a ‘blocking buffer’ for western blots – this is typically 5% milk powder in a saline/detergent solution (see ‘Western What’s??’ and its comments section!)

Milkshake

Milkshake brings all the mice to the yard – I mean – helps mice learn associations. Sweetened or condensed milk and milkshakes are used as rewards in mouse and rat learning experiments. For example, a mouse may learn to press a lever in response to a flashing light because they are given a drop of delicious milkshake when they do what they are supposed to do. The milkshake is positive reinforcement – exactly the same as treating my husband to coffee & cake when he goes shopping with me without complaining. I hear from colleagues that strawberry milkshake is a mouse favourite (and also a husband favourite).

Yeast

Just like the stuff used in bread and beer! Although for lab use, it comes from a more controlled and regulated source than the dried variety from the shops. Yeast is a single-cell organism – and its simplicity has allowed the creation of various models that can be used to study fundamental processes in cells that are required for life, for example how proteins interact with each other and how the cell cycle works. It has been particularly useful because it is so easy to grow and manipulate.

Nail varnish

Not really a kitchen accessory, but I’m sure someone will have painted their nails in a kitchen at some point. Specifically the clear, quick drying variety is preferred! A common way of looking at cells under a microscope is to grow the cells on a circle of glass called a ‘coverslip.’ Then when there are enough cells, the coverslip is placed upside down onto a glass microscope slide, so that the cells lie between the two layers of glass. Clear nail varnish is then painted around the coverslip to seal it onto the microscope slide and to stop the sample from drying out.

I’m sure there must be more household things used regularly in labs – especially with scientific ingenuity and tightened budgets! I like to think I’m pretty good at cooking, and I can follow a protocol pretty darn well! However, most important of all, it’s of utmost importance to make sure there’s always enough milk, both at home and in the lab, as running out in either place can really ruin my day!

The Biocheminist

N.B. Posts will now be appearing fortnightly rather than weekly, for the sake of the posts on here and for the sake of my experiments in the lab!

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