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I touched a nerve in another post by mentioning molecular biology kits.

Let’s face it. Cloning kits, sequencing kits, and their relatives are the laboratory equivalent of frozen cookie dough.

With frozen cookie dough, anyone can bake hot, steamy, chocolate chip cookies that taste great. You don’t have to read a recipe, do any math, or figure out how to “cream” butter and sugar together. Just spoon the dough on the pan, put the pan in the oven, and 10 short minutes later: ummm, cookies.

Lab work and cooking have much in common. At one time, only a few people were good cooks. Now, anyone can pick up pre-made food, heat it up, and eat like a gourmet.

I understand the temptation.

Lab kits work the same way. Instead of spending hours on end making solutions, you buy a kit and wow! The solutions are already made and all set to be used. They’ve been tested for pH and sterility and there they are, just waiting at your beck and call. Kits save people hours of time that would be spent doing algebra, weighing out chemicals, adjusting the pH, and autoclaving. Plus, they save the other countless hours that could be spent testing each solution to find out why the experiment didn’t work.

When I was in graduate school, there was some gossip in our department that a graduate student in one of the labs had ordered a restriction enzyme in order to get the tube of buffer! I would never have done that, but I did appreciate it when my restriction enzymes were accompanied by little tubes of sterile buffer and when the nucleotides in the sequencing kits were already combined in the proper ratios. Who wants to spend their time making lots of solutions for one or two experiments?

Kits have also opened the doors and made it possible for high school teachers to have students do molecular biology. Schools can buy kits for procedures that would have been unthinkable in a high school lab, just a few years ago. There are kits for transforming E. coli with GFP, separating proteins by electrophoresis, and DNA fingerprinting, amoung other things. All kinds of kids are learning about evolution and biotechnology because of kits in classroom. These activities would never happen if high schools had to have the facilities for preparing solutions and teachers had to have the training for making them.

So why is this such a bad thing?

Kits are good because:

Kits make it possible for people to perform laboratory techniques without having the training or background knowledge to understand what they’re doing.

Kits are bad because:

Kits make it possible for people to perform laboratory techniques without having the training or background knowledge to understand what they’re doing.

I think some people resent kits because the existence of kits, and the fact that unskilled people can often succeed with them, devalues the knowledge and skills they spent years developing. If someone with far less skill and talent than you, can do a complicated lab technique, what makes you so special?

Biotechnology instructors are skeptical about kits for other reasons. They view kits the same way that math instructors view calculators. There is a legitimate concern that if students don’t practice certain skills, like adding and subtracting (in the case of math), or making buffers and sterilizing media (in the case of biotechnology), they won’t know how.

Kits are a threat because they lower the barrier to entry.

But does using a kit mean the science is bad?

Kit can make bad science easier to do, but kits make good science easier to do, also. I think the best science will always be done when the experimenters understand what it is they are doing. But I don’t think it’s necessary to make all the starting materials, all the time, to gain that understanding.

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  1. #1 quitter
    November 8, 2006

    I think the critique of kits as bad for science because “in my day we had to walk 12 miles to school uphill both ways” isn’t really fair. Things that make things easy are always good, because you can get more science done, and the idea that you can be comletely clueless as to how they work and still get results isn’t entirely true.

    I’ve seen it again and again, if people don’t really understand what each step is doing they’ll make critical mistakes, as even very good kits, like Qiagen kits, aren’t idiot proof and often if you don’t know the molecular biology it might be inappropriate for your experiment.

    Further, there’s lots of times I’ve used components of kits in combination with other reagents and samples in order to create new protocols, and it’s quite possible to still have scientists who know about how things work. I think you shouldn’t even order a kit until you know exactly what it’s doing, at every step (unless it’s something totally brainless like DNA preps).

    But to criticize the use of kits because they make things easier seems a bit of a Luddite criticism. There are just something you shouldn’t have to think about every single time as science gets more complex.

  2. #2 phishstyx
    November 8, 2006

    I agree with quitter, and would also add that the kits allow for greater standardization/reproduction of protocols. Perhaps most importantly, the companies that make these kits, like Qiagen, pay hordes of scientists to refine and optimize the reagents to result in the best yields (or whatever), so that we don’t have to. We can now all benefit from this research and get on with our own.

  3. #3 qetzal
    November 8, 2006

    One other problem with kits should be mentioned. When people buy kits from a company, they often just assume the kits are always reliable and reproducible.

    Not so. Depends on the kit and the company, of course, but it’s not uncommon for a company to make some change to “Buffer A” (for example) without alerting its customers. Often, they don’t even say what’s in Buffer A to begin with.

    Then there are the kits with complex reagents (antibodies, enzymes, primers, etc.) that may vary from lot to lot. It’s easy to assume the company will ensure that each lot performs the same, but that’s not always true in practice.

    It always seemed to me that when you make all your own reagents, you’re more aware of the possible variations from prep to prep, and more vigilant about how those variations might affect your results.

    All that said, I think that the explosion of kits over the past 25 years has been a big net benefit for science.

  4. #4 coturnix
    November 9, 2006

    I am also on the ‘pro’ side of this, for all the reasons already mentioned above.

    Additionally, kits prevent people from becoming “technique mavens” and one-trick ponies, applying their hammers to every nail-looking object in site – something that plagued molecular biology for about two decades, i.e., a “PCR-PhD”.

    Instead, the current crop of grad students can focus on scientific questions and choose appropriate techniques to get answers, even if each experiment requires a different approach and a different kit.

    After all, a kit is just a tool, not something one needs to focus on in itself.

  5. #5 sparc
    November 9, 2006


    Too true, back in the early 90s people got permanent positions especially in medical departments just because they’ve made PCRs in the US. And lack of any biological knowledge did not matter. Still another ten years until the system will recover from this.

  6. #6 Brian
    November 9, 2006

    I would agree with most of the people on here as far as kits go. After all, if you’re talking a standard DNA prep vs. a Qiagen prep, how many people really understand why EtOH precipitates nucleic acids? There really is an impossible amount to know in modern molecular biology. If a restriction digest works in the supplied buffer, then no problem. If not, you can begin to explore the various conditions that would optimize your reaction. There is no compelling reason to know exactly why everything works as it does.

    Unless something goes wrong. And you learn *so* much more about the system you’re using when something goes wrong than in any class. Kits are beautiful for exactly that reason. You’re not really going to have a problem with minipreps or restriction digests. And, to be honest, how minipreps or digests work on the molecular level is not that important. You will have problems with things like in vitro translation, transfection, qPCR, etc. And how these work is far more critical.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    November 9, 2006

    I’m certainly not opposed to kits. In general, I think enabling technologies, like kits, are a good thing because they make science more accessible and easier to do. It’s great to have a wider group of people who are capable of doing a wider variety of techniques.

    If you are following a well-established procedure – like a restriction digest, isolating DNA, cloning – etc. where are you are simply making something, and not testing any kind of hypothesis; you probably don’t need to understand the components of a kit or what they do. (Unless something goes wrong.)

    If however, you are doing an experiment (as opposed to following a procedure like isolating DNA), and you are testing a hypothesis, then I think you should know what your reagents do and why you’re using them. Using tools that you don’t understand is too much like magic.

  8. #8 coturnix
    November 10, 2006

    Sure, but knowing which reagent does what does not require me to do all the mixing. 🙂

  9. #9 coturnix
    November 10, 2006

    Or, to put it another way, mixing the reagents does not make me understand what reagents do in the experiment. I’d rather spend my time reading about the technique and understanding it then mixing the buffer.

  10. #10 PhysioProf
    November 10, 2006

    “But to criticize the use of kits because they make things easier seems a bit of a Luddite criticism. There are just something you shouldn’t have to think about every single time as science gets more complex.”

    A possible downside to this is that if the kit goes wrong, and you have never thought about how it works, then you are unlikely to be able to effectively troubleshoot.

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    November 10, 2006

    “A possible downside to this is that if the kit goes wrong, and you have never thought about how it works, then you are unlikely to be able to effectively troubleshoot.”

    Exactly! To me, knowing what you’re doing is makes doing science different from doing magic.

    Brian – if you’re isolating DNA, I think you should know why ethanol causes DNA to precipitate.

  12. #12 Dior
    November 10, 2006

    I used kits for ovr 20 years. Some were good and lowered the time invested to find a result. Some were not so good and we stopped using them. Kits are tools. It means that if you do not know the theory behnd them, you won’t be as successful as someone who does. If I just want to screen clones, why reinvent the wheel? Pony up the 250 bucks to Qiagen and go to work. But when I find something no kit in the world will do what I need and that is where real science can go forth’

  13. #13 PhysioProf
    November 11, 2006

    As long as we’re talking about routine recombinant DNA manipulations–mostly gene synthesis, subcloning, point mutagenesis–I’d like to point out that in my lab we have analyzed the economics and decided that for large-scale projects that involve ten or more distinct constructs at a time, it is actually cheaper to outsource these tasks to contract labs.

    Mostly this is because (1) the time of my students and post-docs costs a lot more than the time of technicians in contract labs, (2) contract labs exploit economies of scale in purchasing reagents, and (3) the substantial regained opportunity cost of my students and post-docs spending time doing mindless recombinant DNA manipulations instead of thinking, reading, and designing, performing, and analyzing actual experiments.

  14. #14 Aleiex
    November 11, 2006

    Hello there!

    I’ve just started working in a biotechnology Lab for my bachelor thesis so… im a newbie. Fortunately I’ve learned to do a few procedures by the “traditional” way but I’ve also used Kits to do the same. I like learning “hand made” procedures, but Kits save so much time that they can be very handy.

    If someone only uses Kits but can’t understand how do they work then they’re not doing -science- but following a recipe.

    Sorry for my weak english, Its been a while since I wrote something (I promise to practice more!).

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