Here’s a life lesson learned: If you do not want to increase the number of gray hairs on your head by three orders of magnitude, then do not try to import tissue samples from endangered species across international borders. If you do want to increase your gray hair count well then, by all means, go ahead. You have my blessing.
As it turns out, this process, if completed successfully, can be qualified as nothing short of miraculous. Miracles do happen. I am now a believer. However, sometimes they require a bit of, well…nudging along. The nudging, in the case I’m documenting here, consisted of paying an exorbitantly incompetent shipping company an exorbitantly gross amount of greenbacks, completely lucking out and having our samples inspected by the nicest U.S. Fish & Wildlife customs officer ever to exist, and a graduate student who was willing (or desperate enough?) to spend 13 hours in the car driving from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA and back in one day to recover them when FedEx refused to deliver them. All right, if I’m being honest, the nudging was a bit more like shoving.
Now that I’ve shoved my way into witnessing a miracle, what do I do with the tissue samples that were delivered like manna from above?* Molecular biology! The term “molecular biology” sounds impressive, but I promise you that buried underneath that cryptic appellation, is a simple concept. Let’s break it down: The word “molecule” is derived from the Latin word “moles” which means tiny particle. And “biology” just translates to the study of life. The goal, then, of molecular biology is to understand the interactions between the different particles that make up a cell, for instance. Here, the particles are simply DNA, RNA, and protein. It helps to think of it as trying to uncover a buried set of blueprints. The blueprint is the plan that encodes for the interacting parts of the architectural structure—the cell!
If you’re anything like I was 10 years ago, the term molecular biology evokes romanticized images of bespectacled scientists in their crisp lab coats hovering over a microscope in a darkened room. You’ve heard of the term glorifying the mundane? Well, I’m here to dull-ify the exalted—to dispel distorted perceptions. I am a molecular biologist. I don’t wear spectacles. I hate microscopes. And I work under supreme lighting conditions. Hell, I don’t even wear a lab coat most of the time!
Actually doing molecular biology is pretty much like preparing a meal. It’s cookbook! It is, quite literally, following a recipe. But of course, in science, we have fancy names for everything. We call our recipes “protocols”. When we talk about ingredients, we give them enigmatic names like “substrates”, “solutions”, or “buffers”. Mixing or stirring can be labeled as “vortexing” or “centrifugation”.
The protocol tells you to add this ingredient here, stir your amalgamation of components for this many minutes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If you do it exactly right, then magic happens. Actually, most of the time you don’t even have to do it exactly right. Almost exactly is okay, too.
That magic that I need to happen is to separate the RNA in my “manna from above” from the rest of the cellular “junk” that is uninteresting to me at this moment. Follow the protocol that tells you exactly how to do this, and you’re golden. However, RNA is a finicky, little molecule. It has an annoying tendency to deteriorate rather quickly. In fact, it holds the superlative of “Most Likely to Degrade” by its senior high school class.
When I’m in the field collecting my samples from the fuzzies, I immediately place them into a solution that stabilizes the RNA and keeps it from being degraded (or at least slows down the degradation. Nothing in life is perfect). Back in the lab, once I remove my tissue samples from the safety of their solution, they become a ticking time bomb. Enzymes called RNases, which in my mind look like greedy, little Pac-Men, are just waiting to chew up my RNA in their oddly triangle shaped mouth.
The way to combat Pac-Man RNases is to complete protocols in record time. Speed is your friend here. To that end, one must become very proficient at things like opening tubes with one hand and, importantly, reading through your protocols ahead of time!
Not all of molecular biology is monotonous and slightly stress-inducing, though. For example, I get to use Über-expensive equipment. Behold the TissueRuptor®!
This little gem functions to break apart my tissue samples, so that the RNA I am after is released from the nucleus of the cell (i.e. nuclear prision). Using the TissueRuptor® is so inspiring that I wrote a sonnet in its honor. It’s called “Ode to a TissueRuptor®”**.
“TissueRuptor®, the love I bear thee is never enough.
You gleam, pulverizing samples like a beast.
Because of you, my RNA is released.
Your stainless steel is all shiny and…stuff.
TissueRuptor®, my heart soars, joyful and giddy.
You cut through fat tissue like butter with a knife.
You are, at this moment, the most important thing in my life.
Thanks to you, I may actually get my Ph.D.”
It’s a jungle out there!
*And I say this with most extreme sense of irony, as I was, of course, the unlucky graduate student who was stuck in my car driving to Atlanta and back on a lovely Saturday afternoon. I’m not bitter, I swear.
**Also of noted import is the fact that these two paragraphs took me longer to write than the rest of the post. Maybe I should stick to the science.