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Everyday Hazards in Biotechnology Lab.

BY: Hannibal Musarurwa | Category: Careers | Submitted: 2010-08-02 17:32:11
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Article Summary: "Common hazards and dangers of working in a biotech laboratory: Life in the lab can be risky if care is not taken as we carry out our duties. There are lot chemicals (many mutagenic and in some cases carcinogenic) and many machines that can potentially harm lab occupants. Thus life in the lab must be characterized by diligence ca.."

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A career as a biotechnologist is very exciting and can prove to be very rewarding if you happen to put your focus on developing the right innovations. It is the only place where you seem to make scenes of sci-fi movies can be realized. Imagine making rabbits that glow in the dark by just adding one green fluorescent gene on it genome, developing plant varieties that pests cannot attack, making drugs from yeast and bacteria and just the mere fact that you are tell organisms what to do and it's done. The remuneration is usually good and the pecks are great. However there are a few things that we need to cautious about, lest we find ourselves obliviously becoming experiment subjects to experiment we never designed. In a normal working day we come in contact with mutagenic, carcinogenic compounds, radioactive material, toxic wastes, corrosives material and the equipment we use easily fits well on the dangerous objects list.

Mutagens and Carcinogens Hazards
Mutagens are compounds that capable of inducing mutations resulting loss of gene function and in some cases can be carcinogenic. Carcinogens are cancer causing molecule that when we come across them have the potential to disrupt gene expression by damaging our DNA. In the case of cancer the result is an uncontrollable division of somatic cells that eventually leads to tumour formation. In a molecular lab, usage of ethidium bromide (EtBr) is a routine as it is the most common way of visualizing DNA bands when doing a gel electrophoresis as it fluoresces under (ultra violet) UV light. The ability of EtBr to bind to double stranded DNA makes it very important in gel electrophoresis, but it is also the reason it is mutagenic. Our cells have a lot of double stranded DNA and any contact with EtBr increases the risk of us mutating our cells since it has a tendency of binding to it. Care should be taken always when working with EtBr. It is advisable to wear gloves when handling EtBr. Latex gloves are not really effective for this purpose and it is always recommended to use nitrile gloves. UV is another mutagen that is common in a molecular lab. We usually use it for florescing EtBr, cross-linking during hybridisation and for maintaining a sterile environment on the laminar flow bench. Unfortunately, when masked with white light it is not visible and most research will only realize they are in danger when they smell their skin burning. This usually happen after one has been working for more than 30 minutes and the result, in addition to burnt skin, will be dried eyes and nostrils.

Radioactive Material Hazard
Madame Marie Curie can be counted amongst some of the best scientists of all time. She won two Nobel Prizes for the first time in the history of the awards. Her most outstanding work was on radioactivity and she would move around with test tubes containing such material without any protective clothing, which is suspected to be the reason for her death. The same radioactive material is what popularly used for construction probes when carrying out Southern and Northern hybridization in when assess copy number and level of expression in transgenics. Presently laboratories have to be licensed to store radioactive material and there should be a scientist certified to purchase radioactive material in that lab. These are just regulatory procedures to reduce misuse of but when it comes to handling the end user ought to be careful and responsible for the benefit of everyone who will use the same facility. The sad reality with radioactivity and mutagenic compounds is that at the time they penetrate our systems we do not feel anything and the effects will only be seen years later.

Burners and Centrifuges
When carrying out tissue culture procedures, it is recommended that you have a flame on the bench and your tweezers be kept in ethanol. The combination of ethanol and a naked gas flame does not look like it will provide the best work environment. There have been cases of students and researchers catching fires on the bench. The main reasons were negligence and exhaustion. To avoid such accidents we should make it a point that we are extra careful on the tissue culture bench and avoid working with flames when you are two tired. I am sure most of us cannot imagine DNA extraction, plasmid isolation and many other routine experiments without using either the bench to or the floor centrifuge. Most of the protocols would be tedious if not impossible, but should the rotor come out of the machine, the effects could life threatening if not terminating. It is important to always use the right sized rotor, balance the tubes and be certain that the lid is closed to avoid such a possibility.

Life in the lab is full of adventure but care must be taken to reduce physical injury and loss of property. It is encouraged all the time to be alert of any possible accidents and strive to prevent them before they occur. Protective clothing is always mandatory in any laboratory and dangerous compounds should be handled with great caution.

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