Friday, June 29, 2007

Survivor – Biochemistry lab

(My laptop is having some serious trouble, so there is a good chance it might die and I might not be able to blog at all for the next week. Hope I can save it).

I’m not big on reality TV shows, but over the years have caught an episode or two of the immensely popular Survivor shows, where a whole bunch of annoying people are left on a “deserted” island or something, and have to survive using the minimal tools they have, foraging for food and using their wits.

Well, I don’t know about deserted islands, but let us say I had to choose to be abandoned all alone somewhere. And that somewhere cannot have any other people in it, nor would there be any food, but I had to use the resources available, as well as knowledge of the environment to survive.

There is only one place I can think of where I think I’ll be able to do just fine. And that would be a well equipped biochemistry/biology lab.

No, the high-speed university internet connection is NOT the reason why I choose the lab to be abandoned in. And it isn’t because I’m a workaholic science geek, so I’d work myself out of boredom and to death. It is purely because just about everything you’d need to survive (and possibly even thrive, with only your lost sanity as collateral damage) is available in plenty in a well equipped biochemistry lab.

There are three things you need to survive. Water, shelter and food (in that order of importance). Throw in sanitation, and life is good.

Let’s start with water. There’s plenty of water in labs, since they can’t function without a steady supply. There are plenty of deionizers to further purify the water, so it will be absolutely free of any microbes and perfectly potable.

As far as shelter goes, labs aren’t too bad. Most of them have the temperatures set at a comfortable 25 degrees centigrade. Now, you might think that isn’t fair, but too many biochemists swear by assays and reactions at “room temperature” (read ~ 25 C), which means you cannot turn off the heat or air conditioning (as the case may be). If you did, I will argue that it isn’t a fully functional biochemistry lab any more. So, shelter is taken care of, and quite nicely.

Then there’s the other important factor; food. And surprisingly, biochemistry labs are fabulous sources of food, with spectacular choice. First, there is plenty of glucose, sucrose or sodium chloride (salt) in the chemical reagent shelf. So, emergency drips of glucose or saline is just no problem. But you cannot survive on salt and sugar alone, and the body would waste away too quickly. What you need are carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins.

No problem. The solution lies in the availability of plenty of media all around the lab. The richest (and nastiest) source of nutrition is probably Luria-Bertani (LB) broth, a potent mixture of yeast extract, tryptone (which is a specially formulated enzymatic digestion of a protein called casein) and salt. Yeast extract, like the name suggest, is obtained from yeast. It contains a whole bunch of proteins, vitamins and other components that yeast cells release when inactivated. A superbly rich food. Now, usually LB is used to grow bacteria but hey, if it is good for the bacteria, it probably is good for me.

But if that stuff seems too nasty, there’s always the option of using cell culture media. The various media are made of a precise balance of salts, minerals, vitamins, and proteins (from serum). Using this, various types of cells (even human cells) can grow quite well. So, this should provide plenty of nutritious food for growth (though it probably tastes terrible). To top it all, you could find most minerals and vitamins you need, which you can carefully titrate into your diet.

And then, if eating all of this gets too nasty, at least most labs are also very well stocked in powdered milk. Powdered milk is used almost daily to make a blocking solution which is widely used in numerous experiments (particularly in blocking membranes in Western Blots). So there’s always going to be something reasonably tasty, and evenings can be spent sipping warm milk with sugar. Oh yes, I forgot. Heating food wouldn’t be a problem at all, since there are plenty of microwaves or Bunsen burners around to do the job.

Sanitation isn’t too much of a problem either. There are plenty of autoclaves to sanitize (sterilize) anything you want. Washing isn’t a problem, since there is a steady supply of water, and soap is always around. But if the purist insists that soap isn’t essential for a biochemistry lab, so it shouldn’t be there, there is no problem at all. Soap can be easily made. Soap is usually a foamy combination of fatty acids, a polyol, a tiny amount of sodium hydroxide and water, and some saponification. So it shouldn’t be too hard to make those from some 12-20 carbon chain fatty acids, and all the other ingredients on the bench.

Life in science might be tough but hey, at least I can say I work in a place where I can be abandoned for days, and still come out alive and kicking.


Anonymous said...

Your soap making paragraph brings "Fightclub" imagery to mind :). The profile of the lonely geek protagonist in the movie fits a biochemistry lab survivor very well. Hope the survivor doesn't end up making such "soaps" as a result ;)

Anonymous said...

I actually had to 'survive' once in the lab - during the Northeast Blackout of 2003 (or was it 2004?). Obviously the lab was the only place with power and internet connections. Fortunately, I had enough food in the office fridge, so was not compelled to start using the LB or DMEM (or powdered milk for that matter) !

One thing I have always had a question about - would you be able to survive on distilled deionised water for long ? You need the important minerals and ions in water, so would dd-water affect the physiological osmolarity ?

Dev said...

You could always add agar to LB to give the food texture if eatig it in a powder form is too unpalatable.


Sunil said...

anonymous....ouch. We're geeks, but we're not thaaaaat bad :-) long was your survivor episode that time? As far as DI water goes, I'm pretty sure you won't survive too long only drinking that. But if you get your minerals and salts from somewhere else (balanced media, for example :-)), it might be ok.

Dev....yuck! I do know someone who did eat a piece of LB-agar once, on a dare (and a small monetary bet).