11/11/22: the lives of lab rats

We set up shop in the Root Lab this past fortnight and powered through some intense pipetting sessions for the stress and NSC analyses of our waterlogging samples. We'll still be running NSC tests late into next week, so I don't have any results to share for the time being. What I do have is pictures, and I will post them in abundance for any of you curious readers who dream of one day performing thumb-straining micropipetting work until your phalange tendons snap. After being pulled through a virtual tour of all our recent lab work, what better way to exit the ride than a one-sided discussion where I elucidate my thoughts on Dr. Victor Frankenstein and ethics in science.


What is benchwork? I was unaware of the term myself prior to working at Morton. Most of the labs during my undergrad studies were relocated to virtual spaces in response to COVID-19, so I guess I was doing laptopwork. For my American readers out there, the word "bench" is synonymous with "table." Before you ask, yes, it was important for me to directly address my American readers because 1) I have a large international audience that checks in regularly, thank you very much, and 2) from my five minutes of googling, the term only seems to cause confusion for myself and a few of my fellow US citizens. Australians and the guy on the Great British Bake Off use the word all the time (according to reddit). I digress, anyway, benchwork is carried out in a laboratory setting using lab benches, sinks, fume/tissue culture hoods, microscopes, and so on. To get really technical, everything I listed above would be considered "wet" lab research, whereas computational work and anything else that can be done in an office setting is defined as "dry" lab research.

The last couple of weeks we have been wearing out the benches in the Root Lab. I know it's unnecessary to summarize what we've been up to over the past month, as you have all been reading along devotedly, I'm sure. From the grinding of root and stem samples, to the weighing of samples and subsequent stress and NSC tests we've been running, the waterlogging project has provided us with a substantial amount of wet lab work. I suppose it's only fair that we endure the same saturated conditions as our poor trees. Below are some pictures and descriptions detailing the stress and NSC analyses.

Above you can see the steps that went into the peroxidase test. A protein extraction buffer was made and kept on a magnetic stirrer to keep the buffer from separating. At multiple points during the peroxidase protocol, we also used a centrifuge to separate the liquid (containing the extracted proteins) and the tissue in the microcentrifuge tubes. Samples were also sonicated in an ice bath. The last images show the 96-well plates with the added guaiacol reagent, the octo-pipette, and the spectrophotometer plate-reader that measures the absorbance levels of the samples.

These are samples pipetted into the 96-well plates for the TBARS test. If you can recall, this test is used for quantifying the oxidative damage in the fine roots. The darker yellow reactions signify higher MDA (byproduct of lipid oxidative damage) concentrations.

Imagine an endless montage of pipetting playing over inspirational music. What you see here are only half of our NSC samples (the fine roots). We will be running the coarse root and stem NSC analysis next week.

What Mary Shelley can teach us about ethical science

Near the end of summer in 1797 Somers Town, London, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose relentless imagination and prescient thoughts on life and the human condition would continue to influence readers centuries after her own departure, was born. The womb from which she came belonged to that of the revolutionary writer and early feminist, Mary Shelley. Her father, prominent philosopher William Godwin, was Mary's sole parental figure, as her mother passed just 11 days after her birth. Constantly surrounded by her father's intellectual guests, she was absorbed in the philosophical, religious, and scientific views and literature of the era. At the time, turmoil seemed to be a running global theme, as the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions were all beginning or ending their revolving motions. The reverberations of the Enlightenment, along with innovations in science, were shaping the world. The amalgamation of these happenings, paired with the wonder and curiosity within Shelley herself, would be combined internally to synthesize her most famous novel: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

This 1831 painting by Samuel John Stump is titled Unknown woman, formerly known as Mary Shelley. How mysterious. Image source.

A short and somewhat satirical summary of Shelley's story: Dr. Victor Frankenstein was raised in Geneva, Switzerland by a nurturing and supportive family that seemed to love him too much. From a young age, he had an intense thirst for knowledge and the origins of life. He went to Germany and studied chemistry after his mom passed, quickly falling into the obsession of creating life himself in the form of a human-like creature. After years of isolation and hanging out in grave yards, sleuthing for spare parts like a fanatic antique collector, he reaches his goal and brings the unnamed thing to life via sutures and electricity. In an impressive act lacking any hint of forethought, much like all of his actions up to this point, Victor also decides to make the creature super huge and tall and strong. What could go wrong?

Spoiler: a lot could go wrong! Vic unsurprisingly runs away from his creation in a fit of terrified regret, and the creature traverses into the countryside like a neglected orphan, only to be met with prejudice and fear from everyone he encounters along the way. This cultivates a deep and bitter hatred in the creature towards mankind. Victor's creation then tracks him down and demands that the inventive scientist build him a girlfriend. When Vic refuses, a series of tragic events unveil and the creature kills everyone whom Victor loves. The splendid and joyous fantasy ends with Victor warning another scientist not to repeat his mistakes in the quest for knowledge, and the creature crying over Victor's corpse before running away into the Arctic wastelands.

Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818. Image source.

Frankenstein is, at its core, a novel exploring the boundaries of human knowledge and creation and the consequences that arise from wielding those two instruments. Personally, I also think Shelley is pointing to the beauty and purpose of life that is beyond what we are able to observe or discover through science and analytical thought, but we can consider her romanticist leanings later. Frankenstein has been reinterpreted by a multitude of playwrights and directors over the past two centuries, to the point where Frankenstein's creation has become a meme far off from the original character Shelley stitched together. The screws and green skin were later additions that obstructed the author's original intent to illustrate the creature as sophisticated and sensitive, yet just beyond the reach of human compassion and connection. Dr. Frankenstein brought life into an uninviting world, and in that act of creation, far surpassed his own abilities to control the being he shaped with his own hands. We know the turbulent historical context in which Shelley penned this literary staple, but how did her book fit in amongst its contemporaries?

Shelley's 1818 novel is considered by many literary critics to be the first true work of science fiction, as the narrative of the story is supported by an act of science gone awry, rather than magic or godly influence. Previous plays, poems, and novels had explored the dark side of human will and hubris. For example, Shakespeare penned dozens of plays on the topics beginning in the 1590's and into the early 1600's. John Milton's 1667 Paradise Lost was an epic poem that greatly influenced Shelley's work. However, Frankenstein was such a paradigm shifting piece of literature because it used science as a vehicle to explore such maladies of the human condition, prompting readers everywhere to consider mankind's potential to cause irreversible damage through experimentation and invention. Shelley's romanticism influences presented a duality between the purely analytical mind born out of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, with the intrinsic beauty and potential of both the individual's imagination and nature. This untethered curiosity is what leads to such influential works of fiction, and fiction allows us to explore future scenarios that are rarely predicted by those who are firmly planted in the present. In every year since, the book has resonated more and more as innovations in technology and scientific understanding spur discussions around the ethical uses of such innovations.

What is fair and sustainable? What promotes compassion and demotes suffering? These questions should be asked when considering applications of science and technology such as the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering of humans and other animals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our foodstuffs, and industrial agriculture methods, just to name a few. These topics are far reaching and have global implications. They are all interesting and worthy of consideration and discussion. However, I am biased, and whether it is due to my innate interests or the current ecological research I do now, I find the impacts of science and tech on the environment, our agricultural systems, and food production, to be most compelling. In what ways have we as a species, like Dr. Frankenstein, acted without forethought?

A provocative and informative book that Shelley's tale of human hubris reminded me of was Charles C. Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet. I will spare you all from another unwarranted book synopsis, but I will point to Mann's work here because it provides a detailed historical account of western science and society's relationship with the environment. The Wizard and the Prophet is a fantastically written dual biography on two prominent scientists of the 20th century, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Mann argues that both men laid the foundation for two opposing philosophies: Borlaug, a "wizard," believed that harnessing the power and knowledge available through science and technology would help shape our world for the better, whereas Vogt, a "prophet," preached of the importance of using science to reveal our biological and environmental limits and responsibilities. Mann details innovations such as The Green Revolution, a turning point in global agriculture production largely influenced by Borlaug himself in the late 1960's, to explore the opposing views on scientific progress and its impacts.

Borlaug, through years of admirable dedication and impressive work on selective breeding programs that produced high-yield and disease resistant wheat varieties in Mexico, would apply his life's work to save over a billion starving people worldwide. For any readers who are interested in crop science, plant breeding, or plant pathology, I recommend checking out his story. Using Borlaug's seeds, paired with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and amended irrigation regiments, countries such as Mexico and India were able to become independent producers of cereal grains. In the East, China and the Philippines would adopt the same methods with high-yield and disease resistant rice varieties. Borlaug and Co. would go on to ship their seeds and cultivation methods to Columbia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. For all of this work, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Criticism of Borlaug's work wouldn't come until decades later when environmentalists and social critics would begin questioning the implications of the Green Revolution. The intensive production of crops that Borlaug and colleagues' varieties and cultivation methods required high-inputs of water and agrochemicals, leading to epidemic environmental degradation. There were also social ramifications that led many small-scale farmers to shoulder increasing amounts of debt, if not retiring from the career altogether. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Mann goes on to question who is responsible for overseeing the applications, as well as the intended and unintended impacts of scientific and technological innovations. Is it the researchers themselves? Those funding the research? The private and governmental bodies that end up using the knowledge and technology gained from such studies? The most logical and prudent option may be all of the above.

There are laws, policies, and peer review systems in place to ensure ethics in science are upheld during the scientific process and throughout the subsequent application(s) of the research. For Dr. Frankenstein, these systems were not set in place. The peer-review process was established in Europe in 1731 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which didn't provide much direction for a young Dr. Frankenstein, who didn't seem too interested in publishing papers. In terms of actual legislation, the US didn't require Institutional Review Boards at research centers until the passing of The National Research Act in 1974, and Europe's 1947 Nuremberg Code wasn't too far ahead. As consumers of science and technology, we can do things (e.g. volunteer, forward an interesting science article to a friend, vote for government officials who are science supporters) to help support research that we believe leads to the betterment of society. As scientists, it is our responsibility to refrain from becoming engrossed in the quest for knowledge and discovery, and to consider the consequences of both our own work and that of our peers.