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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 5, 2005

Home Sweet Home

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Posted by Derek

Chemistry labs aren't known for the diversity of life forms - other than chemists - that inhabit them. It's true that I used to see the occasional mouse run across in an old building I worked in, and no, it was a little grey wild-type, not an escaped C57 Black from downstairs.

Now, once you get over to the desk areas, the usual array of plants do just fine. I have a paphilopedilum orchid that's come into bloom (looking very much like this), six or eight other orchids that are all doing fine, and a bougainvillea that's just finished a bloom cycle. In the spring I start a trellis on the sunny wall - last year I had morning glories blooming all over the place in here, and suggestions are welcome for the next crop.

So it's not like the atmosphere in the lab is toxid, although I wouldn't move the orchids into the fume hood, most likely. It's just not a place with a lot of natural habitats. But habitats are where you find them, as I realized when I saw a bottle of phosphate buffer cloud up on me the other day. (That's a well-known problem to real biologists and other power users; only a hack like me would leave phosphate buffer sitting around on the bench for weeks).

But phosphate I can believe as a growth medium. How do I explain some of the other things that show up? For example, I think there's something growing in a plastic bottle of saturated ammonium chloride down the bench from me, which would be impressive. My wife once saw something gaining a foothold in some saturated brine, presumably some halophilic organism escaped from the Dead Sea.

And my most alarming case, seen at a previous job in New Jersey, was a large, dark, fluffy ball of fungus floating in a bottle of saturated sodium bicarbonate. This stuff wasn't just hanging on in there, it was enjoying itself and reaching for more. There were two or three inches of solid bicarb on the bottom of the solution; it probably couldn't wait to get down and hit the mother lode. "That's a Jersey mold!" exclaimed a labmate.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Morten on December 5, 2005 9:14 PM writes...

Probably molds all you see... those things are special. Give them enough time and one will show up that eats plastic insulation and fiber optics (plastic eaters are already known - I meant that they may need some time to establish themselves).

Permalink to Comment

2. CJ Canuck on December 6, 2005 12:22 AM writes...

Funny you mentioned that...recently I was surprised to see a bit of green growing in my clear glass vial filled with sat. Na2SO4 (good for quenching LAH reductions). I carefully filled and sealed another vial with a fresh solution of the same stuff, with the same result...I guess now I have something to blame my dirty NMRs on!

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3. tom bartlett on December 6, 2005 9:00 AM writes...

Derek: maybe you ought to do more extractions. My aqueous work-up reagents don't have time to incubate new life forms. ;)

Permalink to Comment

4. Derek Lowe on December 6, 2005 9:09 AM writes...

Well, that might have something to do with it. . .I was actually stealing the ammonium chloride from one of my lab associates, so maybe I should have a chat with *him* instead!

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5. Jim Hu on December 6, 2005 1:31 PM writes...

It doesn't surprise me that stuff grows in phosphate. Aside from seeing it in our lab, it makes sense that bugs can get C, N, and S from the air. For stuff growing in the ammonium chloride, however, there's the question of where the phosphorus comes from that they need.

Which leads to the question of whether you're seeing life or precipitates in some cases...or whether there's phosphate coming from impurities in the reagents, from detergent residue on the glassware, or leaching from the containers...I don't think there's supposed to be phosphate to leach, though, in most labware.

If there's soluble phosphate, the bugs have high affinity transporters to use it. But there has to be enough to support the fraction of the biomass that contains phosphate...lipids and nucleic acids use a lot. Food for thought, so to speak.

By the way, the remember me feature isn't working for me anymore (in Safari, YMMV).

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6. JSinger on December 6, 2005 2:27 PM writes...

It's true that I used to see the occasional mouse run across in an old building I worked in, and no, it was a little grey wild-type, not an escaped C57 Black from downstairs.

What I always found funny was that I'd have to fill out two dozen pages of protocols to get ethical approval to even buymice, let alone harm them. And then some would escape,or wild mice would get in, and the Facilities guys would just set traps for them...

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7. John Rogers on December 6, 2005 3:31 PM writes...

This brings to mind something that happens regularly in my lab.

We have had a recurring problem with clogs in the inlet sparges on our unbuffered water lines on our departmental HPLC's for the past two years.

We use pure EM science deionized water, but it does sit in the lab for some time.

An HPLC person from our analytical department said this had to do with microbial growth in the water.

However, the water is deionized. How does life happen without ions?

I know that some stray ions (like carbonates) would be likely to get in there over time.

But in order for basic life processes to occur, you have to have things like magnesium or iron.

Or are there exceptions to this?

How did they get there in the quanitities needed for life?

Does a fly come in for drink and take a potty break while he's at it?

It must things like that if it is microbial growth.

Maybe life always finds a way.

Or maybe its not microbial growth. (But it never happens in acetonitrile.)

Permalink to Comment

8. Jim Hu on December 6, 2005 9:18 PM writes...


The trackback post (from me) notes that there are mycobacteria that can eke out a living from the stuff that leaches into distilled water lines and storage tanks.

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9. John Rogers on December 7, 2005 1:29 PM writes...

Thank you Jim. Very interesting stuff.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Home Sweet Home:

Hanging on for dear life from blogs for industry
Derek Lowe notes the strange places where contaminants will grow in the lab, including phosphate buffers and solutions of ammonium chloride and sodium bicarbonate. This is a reminder of the amazing evolution, diversity, and niche specialization of mic... [Read More]

Tracked on December 6, 2005 2:50 PM


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