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The Science of Making Science Easy

  • Zachary N. Russ

The idea that new technology would work its way into laboratories seems like a truism. When performing cutting-edge research, you need cutting-edge tools, right?

You certainly can't do NMR without the proper equipment, and if your lab hasn't been restocked since the 1930s, you probably don't have it. On the other hand, these things are expensive, and there are often multiple (cheaper) ways to the same end.

Which Came First, the Discovery or the Technology?

The relationship between lab technology and techniques is one of extensive give-and-take. A new discovery or technique leads to specialized devices to do it, and often devices can peform double duties unlocking additional techniques.

So, while the microscope may have enabled manual cell counting and sorting, the limitations of the equipment gave rise to flow cytometry machines. Flow cytometry, especially fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), permitted even more ambitious assays, including those for the identification of new cell populations and the isolation of rare stem cells.

But you don't have to mortgage your house to buy the latest piece of revolutionary hardware. Instead, reach for the humble micropipette. Only 50 years ago the micropipette, like FACS, was more of a concept than a product. While FACS was earning its place in the core facility, the micropipette slipped into every lab around. There are dozens of species in the wild, including repeating, electronic, and the wrist-saving multichannel variety. The adjustable micropipette's ubiquity is a testament both to its versatility and its utility.

Consumables and Services Step It Up

With the exception of catastrophic damage, equipment costs are usually not the largest expense of an established lab. So where does a lab spend a lot of its money?

Qiagen, and most of the industry, affectionately calls them consumables. They account for as much as 90% of Qiagen's $1 billion business. Most are kits, and they are some of the most useful tools to expand a lab tech's productivity and capabilities. Making chemically competent cells no longer involves mixing your own salt buffers; error-prone PCR doesn't require you to play with manganese concentrations; and extracting plasmids is now much easier than pulling teeth. At least, it is, if you can afford it.

Specialty lab supplies and services have expanded the scope of projects possible with a few researchers. So, while you may have a single molecular biologist with 12 hours of patience a day, that biologist can order oligos, assemble them into a genetic part, insert it into a prepared vector, transform it into a cell line, purify the plasmid, verify the sequence, scale up, purify the resulting protein product, detect it on a Western blot, and then chemically link the protein to a surface to make some biochip doodad.

This entire ordeal can be completed without so much as making your own acrylamide gel. Kits, synthesis, and sequencing services as well as user-friendly gear (premade gels, common enzymes, premeasured crosslinking reagents) mean that less expertise, time, and on-site equipment is needed to access state-of-the-art procedures. Even lab veterans find them useful.

Who Knows How to Use This Thing?

Expertise is not without its value, however. With the rise of complex equipment, simplified interfaces became more and more critical in allowing the uninitiated to benefit from the latest advances. But as users become more separated from both the functioning and theory of their equipment, troubleshooting becomes more difficult as well.

In practice, most of a user's knowledge comes from an informal teaching session from one of the more experienced technicians, the manual having disappeared to parts unknown.

Some manufacturers have addressed this problem, including electronic manualettes and built-in tutorials to aid in the calibration and operation of the machine. In my own experience with operating an atomic force microscope, such courtesies are quite valuable; our lab made far fewer technical support calls after these were introduced.

Still, as the layers of abstraction between a user and their equipment grow, prevention of unintentional misuse will become a greater challenge.

I would be remiss to not mention the proliferation of broadband internet connections as a revolutionary research tool. Besides pushing out updates for equipment software and new references, internet connections connect users to experts and allow access to a treasure trove of information. Search engines and online computational tools make a world of data accessible and useful, and supplies can be quickly sourced and ordered. Software difficulties, however, can lead to more time spent troubleshooting than actually generating results.

Just as larger combines and new fertilizers allowed greater yields per farmer, research innovations permit greater harvests of data with a single researcher. But, as with any tool, it is only when they are properly applied that their benefits are realized.