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Setting Up a DNA Lab
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Home > Appalachian Black Bears > About The Project > Setting Up a DNA Lab

Setting Up a DNA Lab

by Laura Thompson
Laura Thompson has written about black bear conservation and endangered tree conservation for Field Trip Earth. Her most recent project, though, was the planning and building of a DNA analysis lab at the University of Tennessee.

Wildlife scientists are often required to spend a large portion of their time indoors in a laboratory environment. Oftentimes, it is the step that comes after the exciting field work has been completed. Examples of laboratory work include identifying species collected in the field, dissecting biological specimens, or solving mathematical equations.

Because of recent advances in molecular technology, many scientists are now focusing their research efforts on the collection of genetic material, such as blood, tissue, or hair. The DNA extracted from those tissues can provide answers to a multitude of scientific questions, including how many animals there are in a population, how the populations are structured, and how far animals disperse. Like many other types of scientific data, DNA must be processed in a laboratory.

Setting up a DNA laboratory requires time to determine what supplies are required, how much it is going to cost, and what methods are best. One of the first places a scientist looks to determine the best technology is a scientific journal. A journal can provide insights on the most up-to-date methods and identify people in other labs who are doing similar work. A scientist then has the ability to make contacts and get advice from people all over the country, and even the world! Examples of advice they might receive from contacts include information about equipment, reagents (any chemical that is used in a chemical reaction), and methods.

Because establishing a DNA laboratory can be very expensive and, thus, a big commitment, the next step a scientist must take is gaining support from other sources. For example, if the scientist is associated with a university or college, she would have to convince the university or college that the laboratory can make a large contribution to the on-going research. If so, the school may provide money to aid in the set-up process. The scientist also may try to secure grants from outside sources, such as government and state agencies.

Once funds are available, the scientist must find lab space that is large enough to house the equipment, such as a genetic analyzer. That type of equipment can cost well over $50,000! Other large pieces of equipment include an autoclave (used for sterilizing glassware, plastics, etc.), fume hood (protects the scientist from breathing in dangerous fumes), flow hood (protects sterile substances from being contaminated by the scientist), thermal cycler (used for making multiple copies of DNA), and a water system (working with DNA requires the use of high quality water). All of those items can cost as much as $10,000 each. Smaller items include a centrifuge, water bath, vortex (used for mixing), hot plate, and pipettors. Examples of other items include beakers, graduated cylinders, centrifuge tubes, gloves, plates, scissors, tweezers, pipette tips, trays, and labels.

Because there are so many genes on a strand of DNA, a scientist must make several decisions regarding where on the strand to look. Primers are used to identify the section of the DNA to be amplified. A primer is nothing more than a molecule strand that serves as a starting point for DNA replication. Scientists decide on certain primers based on what is published in journals and then have them custom made. Primers can be expensive depending on how much is ordered. Also, they can degrade quickly if they are not kept frozen. A variety of other substances are also needed to ensure that the DNA replicates.

Many of the substances used in a DNA laboratory are very delicate and must either be refrigerated or frozen. Therefore, a refrigerator with a freezer is essential in most DNA laboratories. Most genetic material (blood, tissue, and hair) must be stored properly if they are not used right away. Also, the chemicals and reagents require specific storage procedures.

Finally, a computer is a necessity for a DNA laboratory. It is needed to operate and read outputs from the genetic analyzer. Also, it is useful for calculating concentrations, researching materials, and ordering supplies.

Other things to think about are personnel. Depending on how many samples you plan to be analyzing, you may need people helping you. They can be students, technicians, and other scientists. However, paying salaries can be very expensive, which is why it so important to have funding support from your employer.

Once the DNA laboratory is set up, you may begin processing samples! Larger laboratories have personnel to collect the samples and bring them in for processing; in smaller laboratories an individual scientist may have to do the collecting and the processing. Likewise, larger laboratories may have other scientists (from other universities, colleges, and government and state agencies) approach them with studies that have already been designed, while scientists from smaller laboratories may design studies themselves.

Hopefully, this article will increase your understanding of why laboratories are so important to scientists, what a scientist has to do to set up a laboratory, and how much setting up a laboratory can cost. DNA laboratories, in particular, are very expensive because the technology is so new. When you are a scientist, however, the technology will likely be even better!

mugshotAbout the author:

Laura Thompson is a Ph.D student in the Environmental and Life Sciences Program at Trent University, Ontario Canada.

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