Many people in synthetic biology, including myself and much of my lab, are working on using biology to make things more efficiently, renewably, and sustainably. Being able to make plastic replacing biomaterials, chemicals, medicines, and fuels in living cells from renewable resources (especially in photosynthetic organisms that need only sunlight and water) will undoubtedly decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and with a lot of work in policy and process and infrastructure engineering may one day become truly sustainable. It’s difficult to not notice, however, how unsustainable most scientific research is, especially in terms of the plastic waste and the consumables we throw away in everyday lab work. In a busy day of experiments working towards making sustainable biological fuels I can generate huge amounts of plastic waste, and it’s something I feel hypocritical and terrible for.
Like many other things, scientists can now choose from a vast array of labor-saving, disposable kits and gadgets for doing experiments in molecular biology. It is possible to do everything in washable, reusable glass test tubes with reagents made from scratch, but kits with disposable tubes and pre-mixed chemicals can save hours a day, time that adds up when you’re a grad student. One of the kits we use the most in synthetic biology is Qiagen’s miniprep kit that allows you to extract and purify DNA from bacteria. These kits come with disposable tubes for each DNA extraction that become the limiting reagent for doing minipreps, and we end up with dozens of plastic bottles full of chemicals left over once the tubes run out.
There are simple techniques to clean the columns for reuse up to ten times, methods that were the subject of a short paper in BioTechniques in 2007. By simply soaking used columns in dilute (0.1-1M) hydrochloric acid for a while, then washing and rinsing them in distilled water a few times, the columns are clear of DNA that could interfere with future experiments and ready to be reused. We’re starting to roll this out in our lab now thanks to the efforts of one of my amazing colleagues, Karmella Haynes, and hopefully it can spread to other labs as well.
This is just one really simple way to save money and drastically reduce plastic waste coming out of molecular biology labs, and similar plastic-saving techniques can be used for other common lab consumables–pipette tips, petri dishes, culture tubes. As researchers we can work towards making a more sustainable world sustainably, in the lab and at the office just as we can at home–by buying and using less, reusing more, and working towards designing new ways to do things that are really sustainable, not by buying things that are “green” and celebrating the earth once a year.