Save $29,000 this year

FEATURESave in the Lab By Melissa Lee Phillips As a graduate student and postdoc, Doug Juers never had to worry about money; he worked in Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded labs that were flush with cash. Since recently joining the departments of physics and biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., however, Juers has had to learn

By | January 1, 2006

Save in the Lab
Save $29,000 This Year. 15 Ways to Save Money in the Lab.

By Melissa Lee Phillips

As a graduate student and postdoc, Doug Juers never had to worry about money; he worked in Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded labs that were flush with cash. Since recently joining the departments of physics and biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., however, Juers has had to learn a lot about belt-tightening. Even accounting for a much smaller research group, Juers is working with just 10% of his former labs' annual budget.

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."

Make Your Own Reagents
Qiagen plasmid mini kits, 250 reactions:
$290 ($1.16 each)
Do-it-yourself alkaline-lysis minipreps:
approx. $0.31 each
Savings per prep: $0.85
If your lab performs 1,000 preps/year, you save $850

Premade: 1X TbS (1L): $63.31
Do-it-yourself: 1L = $0.42
Savings per L: $62.89
If you use 20 bottles/year, you save $1,258

Premade: $29.15 (per L)
Do-it-yourself: $12.75 (per L)
Savings per L: $16.40
If you use 50 bottles/year, you save $820

Savings: $2,928

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."

Invitrogen One Shot MAX Efficiency DH5-T1 Cells (20 reactions): $210
Per reaction: $10.50
Do-it-yourself: $0.01/reaction
Savings per reaction: $10.49
If you perform 384 transformations/year: Savings: $4,028
Grow Your Own Cells

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."

Ask for Free Samples
One vial antibody: $230
If avoid just two antibody mistakes a year: Savings: $460

Request samples of expensive reagents (such as antibodies) to test on your tissue before buying, suggests Roberts. When companies develop new antibodies, some will give you a free vial if you agree to test it for them and make your methods or photos available for their product documentation.


Old way: Mouse anti-actin monoclonal (200 mL): $240
Alexa Fluor 555-conjugated goat-anti-mouse secondary (250 mL): $122
Total: $362

New way: Mouse Cy3-conjugated anti-actin monoclonal (200 mL): $254
Total: $254

Savings per antibody: $108

If you replace 10 antibodies with their conjugated counterparts each year: Savings: $1,080
Buy Fusion Antibodies

"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.

Avoid Top-Shelf Reagents
1 vial (500 reactions) of highest-quality PCR polymerase mix: $985
1 vial (500 reactions) of plain Taq polymerase: $113
Savings per vial: $872
If you replace three vials a year:
Savings: $2,616

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.

20 mg of vector at regular concentraction: $100
20 mg of vector, diluted by factor of 20: $5
Savings per vector: $95
If you order four per year, you save: $380

1 vial (500 reactions) at regular concentration: $400
1 vial (500 reactions) diluted in half: $200
If you run 500 reactions every two months, you save $1,200 Savings: $1,200
Scale Down Recipes

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.

Reuse Antibodies
One vial: $230
If you normally buy two vials per year: $460
By reusing four times, you pay $115 per year
Savings $345

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.

(Case of 96): $520.80
Price per slide: $5.43
If you avoid 100 slides a year
Savings: $543

Avoid Chamber Slides

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.

Autoclave, Don't Filter
Price per unit: $10.42
If you autoclave (rather than filter-sterilize) two solutions each week, in a year: Savings: $1,084

"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."

One pair inbred mice: $30
One pair transgenic mice: $200
Order placement fee: $30
One order of one pair each, inbred and transgenic: $260
If you split the order with another investigator, you save $130.
If you split five orders per year, you save $650

Per diem costs per cage: $0.815
20 cages: $5,950/year
If you split the costs with one other investigator, you save, $2,975

Savings: $3,625

Split The Use and the Cost of Research Animals

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.

50-mL polypropylene conical tubes, case of 500, bagged: $231.
If reusing saves two cases per year, you save $462

24 small spin columns: $89
If reusing saves 24 columns per month, you save $1,068/year

1 case, 500 nonsterile serologic pipettes: $162.
If reusing saves two cases of disposable pipettes per year, you save $324

Multichannel pipetter tips,
pack of 960: $92
If reusing saves 10 packs per year, you save $920

Combi-tips, pack of 100: $103
If reusing saves 10 packs per year, you save $1,030

1 box of 1,000 20-mL scintillation vials: $178
If reusing saves five boxes a year, you save $890

Savings: $4,694
Reuse Reuse Reuse

Some items in your lab may be reusable, even if the manufacturer calls them disposable. Conical tubes can often be washed and reused, says Shampay. Likewise for spin-column filters: Just boil them in water for 10 to 20 minutes, says Alison Fromme, a former graduate student at Washington State University in Pullman. "They worked indefinitely that way," she says.

You can buy reusable serologic pipettes. You'll have to invest in the initial pipettes (six reusable pipettes cost a bit less than a case of 500 disposable ones), but you'll save money and plastic waste from then on. LIkewise for pipette tips, says Kemp: Just wash with water, bleach, and water; then rebox them and autoclave. "It was possible to do this because we were using them for a single repetitive high-throughput plating method, so we knew exactly what was in them (bacterial solution) and how to clean them thoroughly."

Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology at Iowa State University, reuses scintillation vials. A typical assay consumes 50-100 vials, she says, and her lab can run through several thousand per year. "I have calculated that if you clean the vials and reuse them, even at my salary, you save a huge amount of money."

Buy Plastics Bagged Instead of Packed
Case of 500, racked: $246
Case of 500, bagged: $231
If you buy four cases per year, you save $60

Pack of 960, racked: $70 ($72.92/1,000)
Pack of 1,000, bagged: $38
Savings per 1,000 tips: $34.92
If you use 1,000 tips per week, you save $1,816

Savings: $1,876

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.

10-mL polystyrene serological pipettes
1 box of 500, nonsterile: $162
1 box of 500, sterile, individually wrapped: $212
Savings per box: $50
If you need four boxes of nonsterile pipettes per year, you save $200

6-mL transfer pipettes
1 box of 400, nonsterile: $58
1 box of 400, sterile, individually wrapped: $88
Savings per box: $30
If you need 10 boxes of nonsterile pipettes per year, you save $300

200-mL pipette tips, presterilized
10 boxes of 96 barrier tips: $85
10 boxes of 96 barrier-free tips: $34.
Savings per 10 boxes: $51
If you use 100 boxes of tips per year, you save $510

Savings: $1,876
Use Sterile Items Only for Sterile Techniques

Many labs order sterile, individually wrapped serologic or transfer pipettes because they need them for culture work, but then use them indiscriminately in other parts of the lab. The same could be said for special cell-culture sera, barrier pipette tips, and RNAse-free reagents. Make sure your students and employees know that these items should be used only when necessary, and that less-expensive options will work for most other applications.

Get Biotech Company Leftovers
New electrophoresis unit: $4,387.
Demo unit: $3,290
You save $1,097

New thermocycler: $7,295
Demo unit: $4,300
You save $2,995

New spectrophotometer: $5,100.
Demo unit: $3,145
You save $1,955

If you make one such purchase every two years, on average per year: Savings: $1,008

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."

Standard microscope configuration: $110,000
Woods Hole microscopy course: $3,000
Custom-configured microscope: $60,000
Savings per instrument: $47,000
If you order a new microscope only every 20 years, on average per year:
Savings: $2,350
Create the equipment you want

Alexy Merz, an assistant professor of biochemistry at UW, knew exactly what his lab needed in a microscope. A $3,000 course in microscopy at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory gave him the knowledge to save $50,000, Merz says.

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.

Once you know what you want, don't hesitate to haggle. "I was extraordinarily aggressive with the vendors" when shopping for the microscope, Merz says. "It's pretty effective, actually, to find similar products from two different companies or distributors and then just have them bid against each other," agrees Josh Akey, an assistant professor of genome sciences at UW.

Total Annual Savings: $29,227

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