It’s not as bad as the Great Brooklyn Tampon Shortage, but it’s just become a lot harder to study marine viruses. There are two basic ways to figure out how many viruses are in a given sample, such as a milliliter of seawater. One method is to mix a bacterial (or algal) cell with a certain amount of seawater and look for plaques–holes in the lawn:
The number of plaques equals the number of viruses.
This method has several problems, perhaps the most obvious of which is that you will only observe plaques if the virus can infect those cells. A culture-independent method filters the sample through an Anodisc filter–the viruses don’t pass through the filter–and then stains the viruses with a fluorescent dye. Using a microscope, you then simply count the number of fluorescent dots. Anodisc filters, made by Whatman, are critical because, unlike other filters, they don’t fluoresce when exposed to the dye.
Simple enough, right? Enter the joys of mergers and acquisitions:
Researchers studying viruses in the environment are scrambling to stockpile tiny laboratory filters called Anodiscs after GE Healthcare announced it would stop making them at the end of the year.
Down to their last filters and with boxes on back-order, many labs have stopped ongoing research projects. Environmental microbiologist Jed Fuhrman of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles calls the situation a “nightmare” adding that his lab paused a 10-year project of collecting monthly virus samples from the waters between Los Angeles and nearby Catalina Island. The filter shortage “pretty much killed that project,” Fuhrman says….
Unlike filters made by other companies, these quarter-sized filters don’t glow themselves, which allows scientists to pick out the faint virus spots from a dark background. “It’s a little bit of a house of cards, because these techniques are all built on one filter made by one manufacturer,” says environmental microbiologist Eric Wommack of the University of Delaware in Newark. An alternative counting method called flow cytometry requires more expensive equipment and greater expertise to get reliable data.
GE Healthcare acquired Whatman, the company that previously made Anodiscs, in 2008 and plans to discontinue the product on 31 December. In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, a company spokesman wrote that GE Healthcare is looking for “potential solutions,” but wouldn’t disclose what they were.
GE, we bring good things to life!
This sucks. If you dig virology, you might think about sending GE a letter.