My lab focuses on synthetic biology research, specifically, building synthetic cells for studying modern terrestrial life and for investigating the possibilities for life elsewhere in the Solar System. Our work is not directly applicable to detection, prevention, or treatment of viral diseases, so there’s nothing immediately useful for the COVID-19 effort that we could be doing in the lab. Thus, for everyone’s safety our lab has been working remotely since the middle of March as a result of first a campus-wide non-essential operation shutdown order, followed by a state-wide shelter in place order a couple days later.
Not being able to do lab work means we cannot make much progress on any of our experimental projects. This doesn’t mean we cannot get any work done, though. I share our experiences here with the hope that they may be useful to other researchers during the current shutdown, or in planning for the possibility of future disruptions.
Shutting down for COVID-19 precautions
Thanks to effective communications from our university in early March, our lab had several days to prepare for a possible shutdown before we received the official order to begin working remotely. During that time, we limited long-term experiments and froze all reagents that we were not using in the last few days of work.
Most of the time, bacteria freeze well in glycerol. If you’re worried about the stability of glycerol stocks, try stab cultures. Those agar-filled tubes, stabbed with pipette tip containing bacteria culture, are good in the fridge for a few months.
Every group has its own persnickety specimens that always cause problems. For our lab, they are cyanobacteria. The green bacteria grow very slowly, and there is no good method of storage. We decided to hedge our bets, splitting cultures between dark fridge stocks and 4 °C incubators that cycle between light and dark.
We also have large (and expensive) amounts of purified fragile reagents, including ribozymes and tRNA. There is nothing special we can do to preserve those, beyond the usual storage at -80 °C. We also culture mycoplasma bacteria (ours are mostly goat parasites), but, thankfully, those and our mammalian cells freeze well in regular media. For some cell lines we add cryoprotectants such as DMSO.
On our last day in the lab, we scrambled to remember small things, like moving ethanol bottles from benches to the fume hood. We inventoried all buffers and stocks that need to be prepared fresh, made a list of solutions we will have to make from scratch first thing when we get back to the lab, and threw away anything with less than a month of shelf life. We also made sure all freezers are plugged into outlets that will be supplied with emergency power should the electricity go out—although this was mainly for peace of mind.
Members of the lab were allowed to bring computer equipment from their desks, including monitors and peripherals, home for the time being. This will help us to set up temporary home offices without spending additional money.
To help us smoothly resume operations after time away from the bench, I asked everyone in my group to write a brief summary of their current activities, a snapshot of where all their projects are, and what immediate next steps they plan on taking.
A few people in every lab at our university are designated as emergency personnel, and those of us in this role will be going in a couple of times a week to make sure nothing leaks or needs immediate attention. We will try not to forget watering the lab plants, but eventually we may become a succulent community.
Luckily, my lab has no long-term incubation experiments, and no animals. Groups working on vertebrates will likely suffer the biggest setbacks in the current shutdown, especially given that some will need time to rebuild colonies once lab work resumes.
Staying productive during the pandemic
Most of my lab members will spend their time away from the lab writing papers. We have plenty of data that need to be analyzed, and we’re working on a few reviews and perspectives. In addition, students still have classes and preliminary exams to study for, and postdocs can take time to review fellowship options and start writing their applications.
This is also a good time to do things that we have always been putting off, such as lab documentation and the backup and cataloging duties all groups procrastinate on. For example, are all plasmids in your lab cataloged? If you don’t have a master list, this could be a great time to start one. My lab uses a free online database. At a minimum, each plasmid has the name, source, promoter, insert, and antibiotic resistance information. Are all plasmid maps available to everyone? If not, I suggest having people pull map files from the depths of their notebooks and emails and make a shared plasmid info repository.
Reagents are another candidate for cataloging. Our lab stays on top of this particular task by keeping all the orders in a database, which gives easy access to information about location and how much we have. If you haven’t done that, there is free software to use. You could get a head start on lab inventory by plugging in a few months of recent orders at home.
Are manuals for instruments, and their most common error codes, accessible to all lab members? There’s a lot of knowhow that gets passed down in the lab lore—for example, which plate reader is accurate for short reads but should not be used overnight, or which incubator cools reliably below room temperature. Organizing that information will help new lab members, and also might help in making informed decisions about which misbehaving pieces of equipment need to be replaced.
It’s unavoidable that experimental research all over the world will suffer significant losses of productivity this year. However, right now our priority is the health and safety of our groups and making sure we remain as productive as possible so that we are ready to resume experimental research once the pandemic is under control. Our group has learned a lot about how to shut down lab operations in an orderly way, and we’re building skill sets for staying productive as experimental researchers without a lab. I hope we never have to use those skills again.