Trade publications in biology teaching

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Sandra Porter

Trade publications; such as catalogs, technical bulletins, and web sites; are a valuable source of information for students in biotechnology-related courses. Not only do catalogs and technical publications provide current information, but they also contain a wealth of useful facts and physical constants that biologists need on-the-job. Further, using catalogs in the classroom mimics the way that science is carried out in the real world. In the research lab, scientists and technicians often rely on catalogs, technical bulletins, and web sites, for quick and useful information.

I probably wouldn't ever have learned about inteins - self-splicing proteins - for example if I hadn't seen the NEB newsletter sitting around in the coffee room.

I'm not sure if this practice is common now, but in the earlier days of molecular biology many of the reagent vendors, like NEB, Stratagene, and BRL, were actively engaged in research and in spreading the news of new discoveries.

Companies were also engaged in testing research protocols. In the late eighties, molecular biology students were very superstitious, possibly because we didn't really know what we were doing anyway and each protocol had so many steps. As a consequence, we tended to follow protocols somewhat blindly, with few deviations. The protocols were gold and we rarely went "off-book." Fortunately, BRL (a defunct reagent company) used to have a wonderful publication where they did experiments to test the pervasive myths of the molecular biology lab. If it weren't for the scientists at BRL, biologists would probably still be precipitating DNA in dry ice baths and using storing oligos in buffers with the wrong pH.

I frequently used catalogs or technical bulletins from reagent vendors as teaching resources in biotechnology courses at Seattle Central Community College. All my students had their own copies of the New England BioLabs catalog. They used this catalog to find information on restriction enzymes, buffers, absorbance constants, molecular weights, and other facts that they needed for doing molecular biology lab work.

The other catalog that I found essential was the Difco Manual. For microbiologists, the Difco Manual is the equivalent of Harold McGee's classic book for chefs ("On Food and Cooking"). For years, as a microbiologist, I used LB or BHI broth to grow bacteria and made media with all kinds of mysterious ingredients like tryptone and peptone

. The Difco manual, with its wonderful descriptions of media ingredients, opened my eyes and provided enlightenment. Naturally, the Difco manual became required reading for students in our media and solution preparation course.

Fortunately, those two resources are available on line. You can get the NEB reference material at: www.neb.com and the Difco manual here. The Difco manual isn't free but it is fun to read.