Back in 1967, I was a graduate student in the laboratory of biophysicist Philip Hanawalt at Stanford University. For my thesis research, I studied the properties of the weak bonds that hold nucleic acids together. When DNA winds and unwinds, hydrogen atoms in the bonds break away and exchange with those in the surrounding water. 

          Photo of Carl Hanson.
Carl Hanson recently retired from the California Department of Public Health, where he spent the last 46 years working on a number of projects, including developing virus-neutralization assays.
Peter Patiris

To study these kinetics, I routinely placed nucleic acids in radioactive water and added the slurry to a liquid chromatography column. Inside, porous beads caught tiny water molecules but allowed large nucleic acid molecules to filter through to ordinary water, where new, nonradioactive, bonds formed.

This process normally took a few minutes, but these reactions are fast, and I wanted to try and capture what was happening to the molecules after seconds. One day, I applied pressure to the column to compress the timescale. It worked! I kept cranking up the pressure to see how quickly I could filter the nucleic acids. However, I pushed things too far.

A loud bang echoed throughout the laboratory as the glass column exploded. I was in a state of shock when my professor burst into the room, quickly clamping his hand over mine to control the bleeding. In a whirlwind, he calmly but quickly leapt into action and rushed me to the emergency room, where doctors removed bits of glass from my hand. 

I eventually collected the data I wanted after I recovered from my injury.1 Later on, I realized that I had reinvented high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which scientists were developing elsewhere in the world around the same time. However, I learned the hard way why real HPLC columns are made from metal! It took nearly 40 years for all the tiny shards of glass to work their way to the surface and left me with a battle scar that served as a long-lasting reminder of the importance of safety in the laboratory. 

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Reference

  1. Hanson CV. Anal Biochem.1969;32(2):303-313.