Molecular biology in the age of kits

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Sandra Porter

I touched a nerve in another post by mentioning molecular biology kits.

Let's face it. Cloning kits, sequencing kits, and their relatives are the laboratory equivalent of frozen cookie dough.

With frozen cookie dough, anyone can bake hot, steamy, chocolate chip cookies that taste great. You don't have to read a recipe, do any math, or figure out how to "cream" butter and sugar together. Just spoon the dough on the pan, put the pan in the oven, and 10 short minutes later: ummm, cookies.

Lab work and cooking have much in common. At one time, only a few people were good cooks. Now, anyone can pick up pre-made food, heat it up, and eat like a gourmet.

I understand the temptation.

Lab kits work the same way. Instead of spending hours on end making solutions, you buy a kit and wow! The solutions are already made and all set to be used. They've been tested for pH and sterility and there they are, just waiting at your beck and call. Kits save people hours of time that would be spent doing algebra, weighing out chemicals, adjusting the pH, and autoclaving. Plus, they save the other countless hours that could be spent testing each solution to find out why the experiment didn't work.

When I was in graduate school, there was some gossip in our department that a graduate student in one of the labs had ordered a restriction enzyme in order to get the tube of buffer! I would never have done that, but I did appreciate it when my restriction enzymes were accompanied by little tubes of sterile buffer and when the nucleotides in the sequencing kits were already combined in the proper ratios. Who wants to spend their time making lots of solutions for one or two experiments?

Kits have also opened the doors and made it possible for high school teachers to have students do molecular biology. Schools can buy kits for procedures that would have been unthinkable in a high school lab, just a few years ago. There are kits for transforming E. coli with GFP, separating proteins by electrophoresis, and DNA fingerprinting, amoung other things. All kinds of kids are learning about evolution and biotechnology because of kits in classroom. These activities would never happen if high schools had to have the facilities for preparing solutions and teachers had to have the training for making them.

So why is this such a bad thing?

Kits are good because:

Kits make it possible for people to perform laboratory techniques without having the training or background knowledge to understand what they're doing.

Kits are bad because:

Kits make it possible for people to perform laboratory techniques without having the training or background knowledge to understand what they're doing.

I think some people resent kits because the existence of kits, and the fact that unskilled people can often succeed with them, devalues the knowledge and skills they spent years developing. If someone with far less skill and talent than you, can do a complicated lab technique, what makes you so special?

Biotechnology instructors are skeptical about kits for other reasons. They view kits the same way that math instructors view calculators. There is a legitimate concern that if students don't practice certain skills, like adding and subtracting (in the case of math), or making buffers and sterilizing media (in the case of biotechnology), they won't know how.

Kits are a threat because they lower the barrier to entry.

But does using a kit mean the science is bad?

Kit can make bad science easier to do, but kits make good science easier to do, also. I think the best science will always be done when the experimenters understand what it is they are doing. But I don't think it's necessary to make all the starting materials, all the time, to gain that understanding.