Bacterial transformation and counting colonies for grade school students

Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.

Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.

A few weeks ago, our elementary school held its annual science fair. Owing to the greater-than-usual number of scientists among the parents, the halls of this event were lined with tables staffed by said parents, showing off the wonders of science, tech, and especially biotech. There were at least three stations devoted to various aspects of stem cell research, and the table next to us had kids run simple nucleic acid extractions from wheat germ using detergent and alcohol – my son loved that one, as he pulled out the stringy goop with a q-tip at the end of the process.

My wife and I contributed to the festivities by putting together a presentation on bacterial transformation. I was just about finished working on a colony counter iPhone® app for Promega, so I figured why not try it out in the field: Print out some colorful ersatz bacterial plates, have the kids count the colonies using the app (yay, touch screens!) and maybe teach them something about genetic engineering along the way.

Our setup turned out to be a lot of fun to run, and quite popular to boot. It went roughly like this: Continue reading

Lab Equipment Today: Kitchen Gadget Tomorrow?

The Latest in Cooking Equipment

My husband likes to cook and he also likes to collect kitchen gadgets. Mushroom slicers, blenders, numerous graduated vials and measuring devices, meat thermometers, etc., our kitchen drawers are overflowing with the essentials for precision cooking. For each culinary process, there is a unique device, and he uses them all. I do not even know what some of them are for. I only use knives and measuring cups. But his cooking is way better than mine so there is obviously some benefit to using the right tools well.

Some of the most sophisticated kitchen tools come straight from the laboratory. I was interested to read an article in the March issue of Scientific American describing how high-speed centrifuges are among the newest trends in fancy kitchen equipment. They are being used in restaurants to separate ingredients into their component parts and create potent flavorings. It turns out that centrifugation is a fast and convenient way to purify fat from various vegetables and nuts, creating interesting flavored butters and dairy-free creams (think pea butter or essence of carrot). Centrifugation is a fast alternative to straining or filtering as a means of separating components. Continue reading