Oh, what we’ve forgotten…

Blue_pigments In this new era of natural philosophers (neo-natural philosophers?), where the cost of buying science kits and instruments can be an obstacle to amateur science, I keep thinking back to how science was done many years ago. What were the tools used? What were the different reagents of the day? How can this lost knowledge be applied today to circumvent barriers to modern reagent and instrument access?

I remember when I was a tech at MIT, back in the late 80s. There was an old Worthington molecular biology catalog with reagents and enzymes. For restriction enzymes, there were two: EcoRI and BamHI. Talking around the lab, our PI told me how "in the day" everyone had to purify their own restriction enzymes. 

To me, that was fascinating. By the late 80s, the New England Biolabs catalog was already full of a ton of enzymes and kits. And, huh, it was so easy to sequence DNA by doing nested deletions of M13 vectors and using the kit's primers. And then you could purify plasmids with CsCl gradients and gobs of Ethidium Bromide in milligram balanced tubes and a wicked cool ultra-centrifuge. 

State of the art, man!

As the junior tech in that lab at MIT, I was also responsible for keeping the fly stocks alive, transferring them on a regular basis from old bottles to new bottles. As per fruit fly science convention of the time, the flies were kept in small glass milk bottles, with cardboard plugs. I wonder how old our bottles were, but I was told that it was getting harder to find the bottles or even the cardboard plugs.

When I went over to the Whitehead to do some experiments, I saw that they all had plastic containers – in the shape of a milk bottle. It was the future, but in the image of the past. I wonder if folks today know why they still use such oddly shaped bottles to store flies in.

Straddling the past and future, that lab was a treasure trove of old stuff. I once opened a drawer at the lab and found a ton of capillary tubes with different color markings and sizes. These were actually glass micro-pipettes, calibrated and used with a mouth adapter (oh, my!), and eventually replaced by Gilsons with disposable plastic tips.

In summary, there are a ton of techniques and tools that have been knocked aside by kits and newer instruments, mostly for convenience (because I am a science history enthusiast, I have a ton of these stories). For those enterprising neo-natural philosophers, if you long for some kit or instrument, imagine back to the day when you got your hands dirty and didn't just buy your reagents. You might find some ideas how to create your own reagents and tools.

Image of pigments from hyperscholar, to remind you that "in the day" artists ground and mixed their own pigments to make paint. No kit for them!