One of the best ways to save money, says Juers, is to "stay away from the latest technical developments, and make do with the previous generation of equipment." Juers bought a 10-year-old spectrophotometer from the US Department of Energy. "I spent some money to get it overhauled, but it works great, and at about one-tenth the cost of a new machine with similar capability," says Juers. His lab has also been using a 40-year-old sonicator. In his former labs, "we would have replaced that sonicator," Juers says, but he's making good use of it.
The Scientist contacted researchers around the world, looking for their tips and tricks for saving money in the lab; here we present 15 of our favorites. Some you may have considered, others you may not agree with. There are trade offs: many financial gains are offset by time penalties or a loss of convenience. But if you follow them all, you could save some $29,000 this year ñ a significant portion of most labs' supply budgets. Thomas Chiles, professor of biology at Boston College, has a fairly typical lab: 10 members and two National Institutes of Health RO1 grants. "A typical supply budget for my lab is $40,000ñ50,000 per year," he says. "If we could cut that by 20%, if we could save $10,000, that would be a significant savings. ... We would certainly look at how to adopt some of these savings plans."
Steve Arch's lab at Reed College in Portland, Ore., generally avoids premade kits, buffers, standards, and gels, and not just for economic reasons. "I think people should know what they're working with and how it works," says Arch, a professor of biology.
For instance, commercial plasmid preparation kits are great when you need high-quality DNA quickly, says Hilary Kemp, a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle. But "it is much less expensive to prep the DNA using the old phenol-chloroform technique." Ditto for coating your own microscope slides, or even building your own DNA arrays.
There are tradeoffs, of course. If a commercial formulation includes a proprietary ingredient, you'll probably have to stick with it, says Melanie Roberts, a graduate student in neurobiology and behavior at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. In some cases, adds Kemp, "the kit doesn't just save time: It makes a high-throughput method possible."
Many labs buy premade competent cells, but "making them yourself costs next to nothing," says Kemp. So reserve commercial cells for low-efficiency transformations. "Transforming just a high-copy vector for amplification can be just as effectively done into lab-made competent cells, for a fraction of the cost," she adds.
Making cells in-house takes three to four hours, Kemp says, plus another hour for the actual transformation. "The premade cells can be used right out of the freezer and require little prep because they are so efficient. From freezer to plate, the entire transformation of a regular highcopy vector takes 10 minutes."
"We select the approaches that will have the lowest running costs in the long run," says François Taddei, a research scientist at Necker Medical School in Paris. Taddei's suggestion: Use fluorescence-conjugated primary antibodies, rather than paying for primary antibodies plus dye-conjugated secondary antibodies. If you can afford quantum dot-conjugated antibodies, you can also save costs on imaging hardware, since you can excite multiple dots with a single light source.
Using high-quality specialty PCR polymerase is important when cloning, but bor for diagnostic PCR, says FHCRC's Kemp, use the lowest-cost polymerase available. "It is important to make people aware in your lab what things cost," says Henrik Kaessmann, a professor at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. If they know how expensive some reagents are, they'll think twice before using them. And don't forget: Aliquoting key reagents into single-use vials will extend their shelf life.
You often can use a fraction of the reagent that protocols suggest, says Vardhman Rakyan, a research scientist in immunology at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK. "This usually requires some optimization of the protocol, but the savings can be substantial."
Cloning-vector quantities can be reduced by a factor of 20 for many cloning kits, Rakyan says, and PCR polymerases can usually be diluted by at least half. Consider scaling down overall reaction volumes for techniques such as PCR, suggests Janis Shampay, an associate professor of biology at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Many protocols give recipes for 50 mL, but these can be reduced to at least 20 mL, possibly even less. If a protocol calls for 100 mL of competent cells for transformation, try using 25 mL instead.
Janice Buss, professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology at Iowa State University, suggests reusing primary antibodies for Western blots. The number of times a solution can be used depends on the antibody and its affinity, she says, but "really good ones we've reused up to 10 times, frequently up to four." She stresses that antibody solutions should be stored in blocking buffer with sodium azide. "We can make one vial last two years, maybe even longer," she says.
Diane Merry, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, has 10 people working in her lab, all doing immunocytochemistry in "chamber slides." "When we have pilot experiments for which to test some treatment and analyze cells by microscopy, rather than using chamber slides, Ö we use tissue culture dishes, and do the analysis in the dishes." This saves her the additional step ñ and cost ñ of using between eight and 12 slides. "When there's one person, the experiment is not a tremendous hardship; when there's eight people, we begin to feel the math of the cost differential," she says.
"Disposable membrane filter units are real handy for sterilizing buffers, but they cost a fortune," notes Denise Muhlrad, who manages a molecular biology lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "If your solution is autoclavable, plan ahead and autoclave it instead of wasting a filter unit."
Chris Wallace, an assistant professor of biology at Whitman College, shares research animals with other groups. "The primary motivation for this is to keep the number of animals we use to a minimum," Wallace says, "but, given the huge cost of shipping animals to our remote location, coordinating animal use can be a significant savings." Wallace's lab studies brains, so they give the animals' liver and kidney tissue to a biochemist interested in enzyme analysis.
Even if you don't live in a remote location, transgenic mice can be expensive. Moreover, your animal-ordering department may be charging you a hefty fee for each order placed. The real cost appears when you look at housing fees for your animals: Each cage may cost you a good fraction of a dollar per day for food and animal technician care.
Buying items such as plastic conical tubes in Styrofoam racks is a waste of money unless you need the racks for storage. The savings per case isn't much, but the extra money isn't buying you anything useful, as the tubes don't need to be racked before you use them.
Pipette tips, on the other hand, obviously need to be boxed before use, but the bulk variety is so much cheaper, it's worth it to take the time to box them yourself ñ provided you don't need the tips for PCR or RNAse-free work, that is.
Failed biotechs are a great place to scavenge abandoned equipment. "There are vendors that handle disposing of equipment from biotech companies that close down; they sell this equipment at a great discount," says Sandra Diaz, a research associate at the University of California, San Diego. "Or, if you hear of a company closing down, approach the company directly," Diaz says. "In the past we have purchased a DNA sequencer in this manner and saved thousands of dollars." Many biotech companies also sell their demo equipment at reduced costs, she adds. "All one has to do is ask."
He told vendors what he did and did not want, and the vendor custom-made it so he didn't end up with any features his lab wouldn't use. About half the money went into a top-quality camera. Now his lab has a $60,000 microscope that, in many ways, can outperform his department's $250,000 instruments, Merz says.