Tom Sargent remembers the day a student in his lab forgot to add boiling chips to phenol before firing up the heater on the distillation apparatus, and the panicked shouting and tearing off of the lab coat, goggles, gloves, and shoes that ensued when the phenol superheated and boiled over. "Fortunately he wasn't hurt," said Sargent, now chief of the section on vertebrate development at the National Institute of Child and Human Development, "but what a mess." Then, there was the time he hooked up a sequencing gel to a 5000-volt paper electrophoresis power supply. Another near miss—fortunately no one was in the room when the gel vaporized, causing the glass plates to explode.

These scenarios are thankfully a thing of the past. Technology and capitalism have together provided instruments and kits that have taken over tasks that back in the 1960s and '70s could occupy weeks to months, and...

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