Debbie Knight

A day in the life: August 12, 2011 (This is only a test … )

In research log on August 12, 2011 at 8:26 am

From time to time, I will give a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of a research associate and talk about what I’m doing in the lab on a particular day. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…” 

The samples of fetal bovine serum I am testing.

It’s hard to please picky eaters.

And it’s also true with some cells that I culture in the lab. These cells I isolated from the lining of blood vessels in the umbilical cord – they’re called endothelial cells or EC for short.

The cells are on a strictly liquid diet – in the lab we call their food “media.”

EC are quite particular about one component in that media: a thing called “fetal bovine serum.” The serum is a component of blood (the part without red and white blood cells). Believe it or not, not all fetal bovine serum are created the same and these cells can tell you which ones “taste” good and which ones do not. So, we can’t just buy whatever is on sale at the serum store, we have to request some samples and test them before we buy from a supplier.

So last week I called up a couple of trusted suppliers to request some serum samples as well as how much this liquid gold costs these days.

Fetal bovine serum is one of the most expensive media components. The price varies depending on the market value. My lab has paid as much as $189 per 500-milliliter bottle. The going rate right now seems to be about $130 per bottle. That’s “reasonable.” We’ll be buying at least a dozen bottles, so that’ll cost us ~$1600 or so once shipping costs are folded in.

I should note that this will probably last a year or more before we have to test more serum.

So what’s involved in testing a serum sample?

This means making several bottles of media which differ only in the serum added to each bottle. The media are tested on the endothelial cells and monitored for how well they grow in the media.

The flasks of cells used in the serum sample testing, lined up in the incubator.

When the cells completely cover the growing surface of the flask, I then transfer a portion of those cells into a new flask with fresh media and again monitor their progress. I will do this for a few cycles until I am confident that I can select at least one serum sample in which the cells grow well.

I just started the process this week and so far several serum samples are strong candidates – the cells are actually growing better in the new serum samples than the serum allotment I have been using for a while now (one no longer available from the supplier).

I won’t know who the winner or winners are for a couple of weeks, but I am confident at least one of these serum samples will work well.

I will say that my least favorite part about testing serum is not the testing itself. It’s the phone calls I will be getting from the suppliers asking me if I’m ready to place an order. And it’s the phone calls I’ll be getting a few months later asking me if the lab needs more serum. But I guess that’s just the “price” of buying fetal bovine serum.

But for now, this is only a test…

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