Quotidian science

A day in the life…of a biologist

Infected HeLa cellWhat does a scientist actually do on a daily basis? A question with too many answers because it depends on their area of science and the research aims, but I thought I’d give a brief description of some of the things I get up to in the lab. This may be of interest if you’re thinking of doing some kind of biological research, but I’ve also found that  ‘scientific research’ is a bit of a black box to most people, so I’d like to try to describe some of my experimental aims and methods. Also, as many biological research scientists receive money from the government and medical charities, it’s important that people understand what we do in our experiments.

Like many other biologists, I’m interested in one of the most basic units of life, the cell. I spend a fair amount of time growing immortalised (as in the undead!) mammalian cells (often human, sometimes mouse, monkey, hamster or other) on coated plastic dishes. This is called “Tissue Culture”, though the name is a bit misleading as it’s just cells of the same type in a monolayer – they do not form tissues. One of the most important tissue culture cell lines is called HeLa and there is an eye-opening book about the woman, Henrietta Lacks, that HeLa cells came from and her family called ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot.

What do I then do to those cells? Well, in my case, I’m interested in Salmonella, so I infect my tissue culture cells with Salmonella bacteria. Once I’ve done that, I can analyse what has happened to the cells in a number of ways. One of the most basic things I can do is just look at them and compare infected with uninfected cells. As they’re quite small, I can grow the cells on transparent glass to look at them under a microscope. They can either be ‘fixed’ and stained (i.e. dead) or I can even look at the bacteria in cells in real time on a live-imaging microscope. There are a number of other interesting ways of looking at cells and many of the lab techniques involve antibodies, which are really interesting and important components of our immune systems, but I will talk in more detail about antibodies and how we use them another time.

Like many other people, I’m interested in what the Salmonella does to the cells they infect. These interactions are controlled by both the invading micro-organism and proteins in our cells. To understand which Salmonella and mammalian proteins are important, a common experimental approach is to delete or inhibit genes (which encode proteins) and then look (by microscopy or biochemical methods) for changes to the course of infection. Quite straightforward in theory, though it has required the development of a vast number of tools to both manipulate and visualise all the many tiny constitutive parts of a cell.

So as well as throwing some bacteria on cells in tissue culture and looking at what happens afterwards, we spend a fair amount of time reading about the results of other scientists and trying to think of interesting and important manipulations and improvements to our experiments. One of the most difficult parts of research is to juggle the requirement to understand in minute detail your own small, detailed area of interest with a broad overview of ‘bigger’ scientific advances and areas and to try to integrate all this information. This has become difficult as scientific advances lead to ever-greater specialisation of areas. In the same way that there are no longer ‘Renaissance’ style experts in diverse scientific and artistic disciplines, it has become increasingly hard to keep up with advances in related biological disciplines…the level of knowledge required is often daunting.

These are some of the challenges facing the modern biological scientist. There are many more issues as well (funding, career structures, scientific aims), but there will be more about those in future blog entries. For now, I’ll leave with the knowledge that my cells are safely growing in the lab awaiting the next exciting experiment!

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