Optimizing PCR: One Scientist’s Not So Fond Memories

primer_tubesThe first time I performed PCR was in 1992. I was finishing my Bachelors in Genetics and had an independent study project in a population genetics laboratory. My task was to try using a new technique, RAPD PCR, to distinguish clonal populations of the sea anemone, Metridium senile. These creatures can reproduce both sexually and asexually, which can make population genetics studies challenging. My professor was looking for a relatively simple method to identify individuals who were genetically identical (i.e., potential clones).

PCR was still in its infancy. No one in my lab had ever tried it before, and the department had one thermal cycler, which was located in a building across the street. We had a paper describing RAPD PCR for population work, so we ordered primers and Taq DNA polymerase and set about grinding up bits of frozen sea anemone to isolate the DNA. [The grinding process had to be done using a mortar and pestle seated in a bath of liquid nitrogen because the tissue had to remain frozen. If it thawed it became a disgusting mass of goo that was useless—but that is a topic for a different blog.] Since I had never done any of the procedures before, my professor and I assembled the first set of reactions together. When we ran our results on a gel, we had all sorts of bands—just what he was hoping to see. Unfortunately, we realized that we had added 10X more Taq DNA polymerase than we should have used. I repeated the amplification with the correct amount of Taq polymerase, and I saw nothing. Continue reading “Optimizing PCR: One Scientist’s Not So Fond Memories”

Selecting the Right Colony: The Answer is There in Blue and White

cloning2Ah, the wonders and frustrations of cloning. We’ve all been there. After careful planning, you have created the cloned plasmid containing your DNA sequence of interest, transformed it into bacterial cells and carefully spread those cells on a plate to grow. Now you stand at your bench gazing down at your master piece: a plate full of tiny bacterial colonies. Somewhere inside those cells is your DNA sequence, happily replicating with its plasmid host. But wait – logic tells you that not ALL of those colonies can contain your plasmid.  There must be hundreds of colonies. Which ones have your plasmid? You begin to panic. Visions of yourself old and grey and still screening colonies flash through your mind. At the next bench, your lab-mate is cheerfully selecting colonies to screen. Although there are hundreds of colonies on her plate as well, some are white and some are blue. She is only picking the white colonies. What does she know that you don’t? Continue reading “Selecting the Right Colony: The Answer is There in Blue and White”

In Vitro Transcription: Common Causes of Reaction Failure

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A widely used molecular biology technique, in vitro transcription uses bacteriophage DNA-dependent RNA polymerases to synthesize template-directed RNA molecules. Enzymes like bacteriophage SP6, T3 and T7 RNA polymerases are used to produce synthetic RNA transcripts, which can be used as hybridization probes, as templates for in vitro translation applications, or in structural studies (X-ray crystallography and NMR). Synthesized RNA transcripts are also used for studying cellular RNA functionality in processes such as splicing, RNA processing, intracellular transport, viral infectivity and translation.

Problems in the transcription reaction can result in complete failure (i.e., no transcript generated) or in transcripts that are the incorrect size (i.e., shorter or longer than expected). Below is a discussion of the most common causes of in vitro transcription problems.

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For the Birds: Knitting Nests for Baby Birds Might Just Help Your Health To

It seems that spring has finally come to Southern Wisconsin. The snow has melted. Most days it is warm enough you can go outside without a parka, hat and mittens. The tree buds are starting to swell. And that traditional oracle of spring, the American robin (Turdus migratorius), has been spotted in trees and yards—along with its less friendly cousin, the red winged black bird (Agelaius phoeniceus).

While spring brings the return of migratory birds, it also brings an increase in the number of rescued baby birds flooding into local wildlife rescues and humane societies. When the babies come to these centers, they need a warm, soft, breathable and washable home that resembles the nest they were hatched in.

It turns out that knitted or crocheted nests are a perfect solution. The nests aren’t just used for baby birds; baby rabbits, squirrels, bats, ferrets and racoons are just a few additional animals that benefit. And the best part is, you could be improving your own health while you create those cozy nests. Continue reading “For the Birds: Knitting Nests for Baby Birds Might Just Help Your Health To”

Cloning Modified Blunt-ended DNA Fragments into T-Vectors

Tailing blunt-ended DNA fragments with TaqDNA Polymerase allows efficient cloning of these fragments into T-Vectors such as the pGEM®-T Vectors. This method also eliminates some of the requirements of conventional blunt-end cloning — Fewer steps, who can argue with that?

Blue/White colony screening helps you pick only the colonies that have your insert.
Blue/White colony screening helps you pick only the colonies that have your insert.

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Over 50 million Died in the Pandemic of 1918-A Century Later We are still Searching for a Universal Flu Vaccine

One hundred years ago, the world was taking its first deep breaths as it celebrated the end of World War I. The Armistice of Compiègne, was signed on November 11,1918, officially ending the four-year long conflict, which claimed the lives of more than 8 million soldiers (1). What the world didn’t yet realize was that they had been battling a far deadlier enemy in the hospitals and at home than any army the soldiers faced on the fields of war.

During the last year of the war, a deadly influenza virus rampaged around the globe leaving between 50 and 100 million dead in its wake.

Influenza Ward, France 1918. 


The boys were coming in with colds and a headache and they were dead within two or three days. Great big handsome fellows, healthy men, just came in and died. There was no rejoicing in Lille the night of the Armistice.
Sister Catherine Macfie from her post at casualty clearing station no. 11 at St André near Lille, France (2).

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Learning New Things About mtDNA Inheritance from a Four-Year-Old Boy and a Tenacious Team of Scientists

We inherit our cells’ mitochondria from our mother. These energy-producing organelles are present in large numbers in most cells, meaning that cells can contain thousands of copies of the DNA associated with the mitochondria (mtDNA)—all passed on wholly from our mother. New evidence suggests, however, that this cannon principle of maternal-only inheritance of mtDNA might need to be refined. And it all started with a four-year-old boy.

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The Five Steps to miRNA Profiling

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, non-coding RNAs that play a role in regulating cancer by acting as both tumor suppressors and oncogenes. Ranging in size from 18–25 nucleotides, miRNAs function in feedback mechanisms to regulate many cellular processes including cell proliferation, apoptosis, cell signaling and tumorigenesis (1).

Not surprisingly, dysregulation of miRNA expression can have serious repercussions. For example, miRNAs are dysregulated in almost all human cancers (1). Because of the potential to influence cancer growth and development, there is growing interest in miRNA profiling to identify possible biomarkers for cancer diagnosis or prognosis, as well as potential therapeutic targets (1).

Growing interest in miRNAs as both biomarkers of disease and therapeutic targets drives the need for fast and effective methods for miRNA profiling. Profiling miRNA targets follows a relatively simple workflow: sample selection, RNA extraction, RNA QC and quantitation, RNA profiling and data analysis (2,3). So what happens at each step?

Five steps of miRNA profiling
The Five Steps of miRNA Profiling

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Fished to the Edge: How DNA Identification Can Help Fight the Illegal Trade of Threatened Shark Species

Whether your first encounter was peering through the thick glass of an aquarium tank or peeking through your fingers in a darkened theater, there is something about sharks that captures our imagination. These fierce, and sometimes fearsome, creatures have existed in our oceans for over 400 million years, and  survived multiple mass extinction events, including the one that killed the dinosaurs. They are not, however, the vicious, vengeful villain that some movies would have us believe. Sharks are apex predators, who play an important role in the world’s ocean ecosystem by regulating the population of prey species below them.  Unfortunately, they are also part of one of the most threatened group of marine fish in the world. Of the more than 400 species of sharks that exist in our oceans today, approximately 15% are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Continue reading “Fished to the Edge: How DNA Identification Can Help Fight the Illegal Trade of Threatened Shark Species”

Beneath the Writing: Non-Invasive DNA Sampling from Modern and Historic Writing Surfaces

We can learn a lot about the past and its people from the written records of the time. What people write and how they write it can gives us glimpses into historical events, interpersonal relationships, social standing and even social and cultural norms. From paper to papyrus to clay tablets, the surface that holds the writing can tell us things that the words cannot.

For plant-based writing surfaces, the quality of the surface or even the technique used to make it can give historians and archeologists insight into the people who used them. What more could we learn if we knew what plant, or plants, were used in the production of ancient writing material? Continue reading “Beneath the Writing: Non-Invasive DNA Sampling from Modern and Historic Writing Surfaces”