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December 5, 2005
Home Sweet Home
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.
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