Debbie Knight

A Day in the Life: March 29, 2012

In research log on March 29, 2012 at 11:11 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…”

Today in our joint lab meeting, the chemistry graduate student mentioned he did an experiment “in situ.”  As he continued talking, it hit me that he (a chemist!) just used the term “in situ.” I know what it means to a biologist, but what the heck does that mean to a chemist?

Is it merely a “you say ‘potaytoh’, I say ‘potahtoe’?”

The term “in situ” is a Latin phrase meaning: ”in the natural or original position or place,” (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary).

To a biologist, the term is used in many circumstances. I’ve done a special staining procedure called “in situ hybridization” on a thin slice of animal tissue where you look to see what cells within that tissue are expressing a particular gene.

In situ, like in the case of cancer in situ, usually means an early stage of cancer where the cancer cells have stayed where exactly where they started – they haven’t spread to neighboring tissues.

So what would “in situ” mean to a chemist? I asked him. He said it meant he monitored the experiment in the instrument where he started the chemical process. He monitored it in place.

There are other Latin terms that have slightly different meanings between biologists and biochemists, for instance.

“in vitro”

To a biologist, this means studying what’s going on in a cell growing in culture in the lab.

To a biochemist? It means mixing reagent A with enzyme B in a test tube.

“in vivo”

To a biologist this usually means studying what’s going on in a living multicellular organism, like in an animal.

To a biochemist? It means studying the phenomenon in a cell growing in a culture in the lab. And yes, this is what biologists call “in vitro.”

Confusing? It certainly can be when scientists talk across disciplines.

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