Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A day in the lab

THE big assignment of day two of the Creative Writing Course was to describe a typical day of our research. There’s no such thing, but here’s what I wrote (slightly edited to remove details that shouldn’t be published at this stage of my project).

There is no such thing as a normal day in my research group, rather many things that happen often, all of them with unimaginable effects, masked by mundane and repetitive tasks. From one point of view, the day starts with some counting, continues on to mixing volumes of colourless liquids and ends with some more counting. But from another point of view, the day starts with the segregation of living organisms according to the manifestation of different visible, heritable character traits, the genetic combinations of which you have carefully created; continues on to the creation of specific fragments of DNA and all manner of invisible yet complex constructs, which you rely on surrogate bacteria to grow and copy for you; and ends with the day’s round up of new fly progeny, which you will use to show the effect of combining two faulty genes, one step closer to finding what you are looking for.

Every day at 9am and 5pm the geneticists in our laboratory – myself included – pour into the fly room, a self-contained unit with microscopes. With a model organism of about 2-3 mm in length, high magnification is a necessity. Fruit flies have been used for years as a genetic model, pioneered by the work of Thomas Hunt Morgan in the early 1900s, as it is very easy to trace heritable, viewable characteristics over generations. For example, if one parent has curly wings and the other spotty eyes, the laws of genetics can tell us what their offspring will look like and in what ratio. Morgan did it with eye colour, and we still use this marker today, tracing red, white and orange eyes through the generations in predictable ways until you reach the combination you desire. It’s not the eye colour or wing shape or hair type that you’re really interested in, but such markers can be associated with mutations invisible to the eye, thereby providing a way to trace a mutation of choice. These laws of genetics have never been disproven (though often elaborated), which we’re rather happy about.

And 9am? Well, this is to collect them immediately after hatching, before they get busy with the ladies! In genetics control is key: you cannot afford for true love to blossom among your young ones – not usually anyway. So, to the soothing sounds of Melvyn Bragg, Jenny Murray or whoever else is educating the world from BBC Radio 4 that morning, we sit, count and matchmake.

Then: to the lab! At the moment I am often making RNA probes and DNA constructs, trying to take a gene, of which nobody knows anything, isolating it and making copies. I use enzymes and salts and, despite the fact that I am simply mixing chemicals and occasionally heating them up, if I were to zoom in I would see the units of life sticking together in often novel sequences, proteins acting as robots on an assembly line, and antibodies scoping out a particular protein like sniffer dogs at an airport. Inside that tube is another universe, operating entirely by itself, with this scientist trying to peer in. I know what is going on only by working through established logic, hoping that I got the recipe right. All I see is one tiny bit of liquid mixing with another, but I hope for the best: I dream of magical things happening.

Sometimes, magical things do happen. After two days of hoping, my RNA probe might start glowing – for complicated reasons – inside a tiny fly embryo, revealing a distinct pattern that nobody has seen before. I can see, quite literally, what parts of the body use that gene and, reassuringly, they are exactly where I want them to be. So then I’ll spend a few days in a dark room, looking at the embryo at 63 times the size it actually is, photographing it and trying to work out what my gene does.

But I must be back in the fly room at 5pm (just in time to listen to Eddie Mair delving into the day’s news) to collect more new-born flies and separate them ready for matchmaking – which invariably happens on Friday, 3 pm, during
Gardener’s Question Time. The hour of genetics has come.

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