We would all agree that being specific is important. But sometimes what it is important to be specific about is not so easy to agree upon.
My seven-year-old son is a good example. Doing his math homework every night he complains that I am being too “specific” by requiring him to write all the numbers correctly. He can “forget” to wear his coat home, where his shoes are, to turn off the lights, to wash his hands, whether or not he has brushed his teeth. Most days he can’t be bothered to put his shirt is on frontward.
However, say the word “Bakugan” and my nonspecific son becomes a lesson in specifics. He knows the name of almost every type of theses spring-loaded, magnetized balls, and can identify each “attribute” by the symbol on the side. He and his little sister have tested their balls on about every metal surface in our house, and they learned that not all metal (i.e., brass and aluminum) is magnetic. If they want the toy to work correctly, they have to use the right surface to open it. In short, they have to be specific. To be confident in the result, they have to be sure what surface they are using.
This lesson about the importance of specificity applies to more than children’s toys. The article: “Doing Good Science: Authenticating Cell Line Identity” appearing in Promega Notes101, highlights how important it is that we as scientists verify the properties of the cell lines we use. Excited and enamored by the possibilities offered by cultured cell lines, we should not forget the importance of specificity. After 15 years of developing human cell lines, we learned in 1968 that some methods of culturing cells can produce unpredictable changes in the cells. Yet still less than half of all researchers regularly verify the identities of their cell lines using any standard techniques, such as DNA fingerprinting by short tandem repeat (STR) analysis (Buehring et. al, 2004). Considering the fact that cells used in experiments have been misidentified or cross-contaminated with another cell lines an estimated 15–20% of the time, the ramifications of failing to authenticate the cells you are using could be mind boggling.
My seven-year old learned that specificity is important if he wants the results to be predictable. As scientist, we need to have confidence in our results. Just like brass won’t open a Bakugan, using unauthenticated cell lines might not give us the results we expect or ones that we can trust.