Biosafety Levels 1-4

We’ve known that breathing in or touching infectious/infected material is probably bad since before germ theory, but it wasn’t until 1943 that our first formal guidelines and laboratories for technician separation from the infectious agent were set up. It was the 1960s before the first conference to standardize personal protection equipment (PPE) guidelines. 

These days we have 4 basic safety levels when working with biological agents: Biosafety Levels (BSL) 1-4

BSL 1 includes well-understood agents not known to regularly affect adult humans, and which present a minimal level of hazard to the technician. Canine hepatitis, non-pathogenic strains of E. coli, and other non-infectious bacteria. Aside from standard healthy-living procedures (washing with soap etc), laboratory equipment is decontaminated via autoclave between uses, protective gloves, and sometimes protective goggles are required.

BSL 2 includes many of the milder infectious diseases that we know about, such as Salmonella, measles, mumps, MRSA, C. difficile, and hepatitis A, B, and C. These are sometimes serious illnesses, but are not easily aerosolized in a laboratory setting. When aerosols may be formed, biological safety cabinets are used, extreme care is taken with sharps, access to the laboratory is limited during work, and all technicians are trained in pathogen handling procedures.

BSL 3 includes dangerous pathogens that can cause potentially lethal infection, such as Yersinia pestis (black plague), rabies, SARS, tuberculosis, tularemia, and yellow fever. Laboratory personnel have specific training in handling pathogenic and potentially lethal agents, and are supervised by competent scientists who are experienced in working with these agents. All procedures involving the manipulation of infectious materials are conducted within biological safety cabinets, specially designed hoods, or other physical containment devices, or by personnel wearing appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment. The laboratory usually has special engineering and design features, such as restricted access, double-door entrances, and sealed penetrations. BSL 3 laboratories are sometimes called warm zones.

BSL 4 includes the most lethal and exotic agents that there are no cures or vaccines for, such as Ebola, Lassa, Argentinian hemorrhagic virus, and smallpox (smallpox for its extreme virulence, despite its vaccine availability). When dealing with biological hazards at this level the use of a positive pressure personnel suit, with a segregated air supply, is mandatory. The entrance and exit of a level four biolab will contain multiple showers, a vacuum room, an ultraviolet light room, and other safety precautions designed to destroy all traces of the biohazard. Multiple airlocks are employed and are electronically secured to prevent both doors opening at the same time. All air and water service going to and coming from a biosafety level 4 (or P4) lab will undergo similar decontamination procedures to eliminate the possibility of an accidental release. Agents with a close or identical antigenic relationship to biosafety level 4 agents are handled at this level until sufficient data is obtained either to confirm continued work at this level, or to work with them at a lower level.

Members of the laboratory staff have specific and thorough training in handling extremely hazardous infectious agents and they understand the primary and secondary containment functions of the standard and special practices, the containment equipment, and the laboratory design characteristics. They are supervised by qualified scientists who are trained and experienced in working with these agents. Access to the laboratory is strictly controlled by the laboratory director.

The facility is either in a separate building or in a controlled area within a building, which is completely isolated from all other areas of the building. A specific facility operations manual is prepared or adopted. Building protocols for preventing contamination often use negatively pressurized facilities, which, even if compromised, would severely inhibit an outbreak of aerosol pathogens.

BSL 4 labs are hot zones.


The field of 3D printing grows increasingly astonishing with each passing day. Today we learned that the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Glass Lab collaborated on the development of 3D printing glass objects. They produced a kiln-like printer that uses molten glass to create intricate glass vessels. The glass objects are beautiful, but the printing process itself is also incredibly stunning.

Glass 3D printing (or G3DP) is based on a dual-heated chamber concept, with the top chamber heating the glass and lower chamber slowly cooling it to prevent internal stresses. The top chamber operates at approximately 1900°F, and funnels the molten material through an alumina-zircon-silica nozzle into its programmable shapes.”

This is cutting-edge technology working with a substance humanity first created 4,500 years ago in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. That’s pretty awesome.

Watch this hypnotic video from Mediated Matter to get a better look at how their amazing device works:

[via Colossal]

Cranquis Recommends: Lab Tech (aka Clinical Lab Science, aka a gazillion other names/acronyms) blogs

Ok then – here they are, in no particular order, with mini-reviews from me.

[Be aware, my “reviews” are based on (1) my 30 seconds of splashing around in each blog’s archives and (2) my having retained absolutely zero knowledge about histology after med school exams were over….]

  • i-heart-histo – lots of original posts, including very creative “look-alike” feature (“This cross-section of a penis looks like a Cartman” LOL!) 
  • Fuckyeahmedlab – mainly reblogs, small archive but good tag index
  • Medical-lab-minds – written by a CLS student, very large archive, takes questions about pursuing CLS career
  • Medtechthings – written by an “ASCP certified MT” with 4 years experience (sheesh, you lab folks love your acronyms!), small archive, takes questions about “anything”
  • Clinical-lab-scientist – written by a “RMT and an ASCPi laboratory professional”, mainly reblogs, medium archive, no updates in past few months
  • Clsprobs – a large archive of original "De-motivational"-poster-style graphics about problems and pet-peeves in the CLS world (which encourages readers to submit your own); my favorite, purely because the meme-based concept is simple for non-lab-techs to understand; sadly no updates since Oct 2012
  • Fyeahmedlab – not to be confused with “Fuckyeahmedlab” (or “fyeahmethlab” haha!), this massive-archive blog is written by a “biomedical science graduate who is working in a hospital laboratory in Ireland”; it appears to be the grandaddy of CLS Tumblrs, posting since Oct 2011
  • Laboratorysciencemajorrbc – this Tumblr has apparently cornered the market on the CLS meme; a moderate-size archive of amusing memes, infrequent posts lately
  • Laboratorysciencereview – a medium-size archive stretching back to 2011, excellent index, mixture of replies to CLS questions and lab science board-review material

I’ll add more to this list if further submissions come in.

Special thanks to LOOONG-time Cranquistador lifeispandemic for providing the bulk of these recommendations!

Welcome to science! If you’re new like me, there is something you should know:

how much pipetting you do is directly correlated with how new you are to the lab. 

This is something I discovered rather quickly. While tedious, it is a great place to start because, though mindless and monotonous, it is the foundation of scientific research. (Or at least that is a nice thought when you’re on hour #3 and sample #492 and your right thumb is going numb.)

When I started, most of my 8-12 hour workday was pipetting. My two main tasks were running PCR and taking blood plasma samples, both of which require hundreds and hundreds of pipette pulls. 

I’ll talk more about the specifics of the experiments I do, but first thing is first. When anyone asks what I do all day, the simple and honest answer is:

Pipette. A lot.


More efficient ways to lower CO2

The term carbon capture is talked about as a way to battle against climate change, but what exactly is it?  This recent NY Times video does a great job explaining it.

Basically, when a power plant burns fossil fuel such as coal, it releases gas into the air.  Carbon capture technology can single out the CO2 molecules in this gas before it leaves the smokestack.  The current process is to spray a chemical on the gas to separate the carbon dioxide so that it can be pumped underground.

This process is both expensive and can take up a third of the plant’s generated power known as parasitic energy.  Scientists are trying to find ways to use safer and energy efficient materials to reduce this issue.  The problem is that a wide array (millions!) of chemicals can bond with CO2, making the testing process quite complex.

UC Berkeley's Berend Smit and his team have created a computer model to test out these materials in the virtual world.  So researchers can upload the molecular structure they want to test to a website and see how efficient it might be.  

You can read more about this project here.

Lab Tech blogs, anyone?

At the request of Cranquistador introvertedloudmouth, I’m collecting a list of “lab tech / clinical lab specialist / medical lab scientist” Tumblrs. Any recommendations from my readers? (As always, you’re free to recommend yourself).

Meanwhile, here are some previous posts which collect Cranquis-Recommended blogs of various categories:

(and check out the #Cranquis Recommends tag for further individual blog recommendations…)

Drink your damn water!!!

I know, I rant about the same thing every summer, but it bears repeating: IT IS VERY HOT IN MOST AREAS OF THE UNITED STATES RIGHT NOW. DRINK PLENTY OF WATER!!!!

All of my patients for the past two days have shitty looking urine. Everybody is under hydrated. Wtf? There is no reason for a bunch of middle class women that aren’t working in extreme conditions to be walking around partially dehydrated. Stop it. And I’m sure the rest of you out there aren’t much better.

The easiest thing you can do to improve your health is to drink more water. This is especially important if you have any chronic health condition or are pregnant. Give your kidneys a freaking break… Proper hydration helps them filter your blood, and without that filtration system, your body literally drowns in its own waste. You do know that’s why they’re in there, right?

Thirsty? You’ve waited too long. Extreme thirst is a sign of mild dehydration. Drink regularly BEFORE you are dying for a drink. And don’t give me any crap about how you hate water. Get some flavor packets or something. Maybe mix up some lemonade. Just get something without a ton of sugar and caffeine in you. You managed to down three beers in 45 minutes last weekend, right? Chug that water if you have to.

If your urine is any darker than the color of uncooked corn, and if it’s not clear enough to read text through (imagine a newspaper stuck on the bottom of your toilet bowl), then you NEED TO DRINK MORE WATER.

Do it. Now.

A note about hours.

I am way too exhausted to write a long post right now, but I think this is a great moment to talk about how many hours I, and many of my labmates, work in a week. 

This picture was taken on a Saturday in the evening. And I wasn’t the only one there. You see, science doesn’t operate within the 9-5 constraints of other jobs. Try telling cell cultures or mice to “wait until tomorrow.” Unlike paperwork, or whatever the rest of the global workforce is doing, months and months of work can die, literally die, if you do not attend to their needs at specific times.

For example, I ran a month-long experiment in my old lab that required me to fast, feed, and test mice at specific time points. The first one was 5am, the last at 4pm, with 3 in between. A missed time point means botched data, and botched data means bad science, and bad science makes you a bad scientist. Existential crisis ensues. See how critical time is?!

Other than the demands of your experiments, working late/early/weekends is also a product of fluctuating workloads. For the past three weeks I had no PCR to run, and had a fair bit of free time. Then on Friday I received four emails in a row demanding genotyped samples immediately. So in order to process the 500+ samples, I had to work Saturday and Sunday.

So the lesson is, science doesn’t care that you want to wake up and go to sleep and eat and socialize at specific times. Science first, life second.

This startup is making lab-grown shrimp to end slavery and corruption in the shrimp industry

To combat unsustainable labor and environmental corruption within the shrimp industry, startup New Wave Foods has been perfecting creating shrimp out of “plant-based protein powder” and red algae in labs, according to the Atlantic. Its first product, which will be a breaded popcorn shrimp, will be hitting the market in just eight months.

In 2011, shrimp was the most popular seafood in the nation. But shrimp also has an ugly backstory.

Follow @the-future-now


MIT - Self-Replicating Objects

The Creators Project features MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab (Dimitris Mairopoulos and Skylar Tibbits) newest project: Self-Replicating Spheres. And it’s incredibly beautiful.

As with other Self-Assembly Lab projects, Self-Replicating Spheres is built on customized magnets. When director Skylar Tibbits and his collaborator, Dimitrios Mairopoulos, place the spheres on a table that supplies passive energy, the spheres stick together to form a cell wall-like grouping that grows as researchers “feed” it more spheres. When it reaches critical mass, the “cell” divides into two smaller “cells,” which can then replicate again and again as they get more “food.”

Tibbits & Mairopoulos are interested in the principles and the phenomena of synthetic life. Sure, it looks like the beginning of doom bringing von-Neumann-probes (Fermi Paradox), a grey goo end-of-the-world scenario or sci-fi swarms of nanobots like in Michael Chrichton’s novel Prey, but according to the researchers we’re pretty far from that.

But to be sure that no harm will come, they want to scale the spheres into the hundreds, or even thousands, to see if their magnetic orbs will turn into more complex beings, or just reproduce like rabbits once they’ve got enough food. Good idea.

[read more] [Self-Assembly Lab] [pictures by MIT]

Bio-Lab - Embryo Injector

High Quality version here:

The other day, I was reading a press release titled “UEA researchers discover Achilles’ heel in antibiotic-resistant bacteria” - but before I could even read the words in the article, the Eye Candy at the top of the page leapt out and VIOLENTLY ATTACKED ME WITH INSPIRATION! I was like “OH NO! MY OTHER PLANS FOR TONIGHT! THEY HAVE JUST DIED BECAUSE NOW I HAVE TO MAKE A GIF!!!” and then the modeling and animation for this design happened in about 3 hours. So I set it up to render at 3AM before going to bed. It was still rendering the next morning, so I went in to work, knowing that it would be done when I got home. Then I got home from work and realized that the output had flaws. So I was like “NOOOOOOOO~!”. Then I fixed those issues in about 2 hours and rendered it again last night starting at 1.75AM, and it finished this morning before I had to leave for work.

I don’t know who took that photograph, but I want to tell them: “Thank you for violently attacking TWO NIGHTS worth of my evening plans. They DIED. BECAUSE OF YOU AND YOUR BEAUTIFUL ART. But seriously. Your photography is Yes. How did you come up with the ideas for that lighting setup? It is beautiful.”

This GIF is one in a set named “Bio-Lab” - and I hope to find - not the time, but the right inspiration - to make a few more of these, because this one is hella shiny and I’m totally down for that.