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August 20, 2007
Volume 85, Number 34
p. 88

Friday Afternoons In The Lab

One lazy Friday afternoon in July, Alex Palazzo, a research fellow in cell biology at Harvard Medical School, and his baymate (lab neighbor) were discussing how they use their PIPETTE TIPS. "Not in terms of experimental procedures or the types of orifices we jam them in, but the order we remove the tips from the pipette tip box," Palazzo clarifies in a July 20 entry in his blog, "The Daily Transcript," at

Alex Palazzo
Tip usage: Strategies vary.

Palazzo says he starts off in one corner and works his way diagonally through to the other end, whereas his baymate likes to cut right through the middle of the box to form a horseshoe pattern. "Quite a bold strategy," Palazzo writes.

They then decided to investigate how other people in the lab remove their pipettes from the box. A postdoc in the neighboring bay said that her strategy for sterile tips is to start from the periphery and work her way inward. This way, she used the tips most likely to become contaminated first and the tips more resistant to contamination last. When she was using nonsterile tips, "her tip-using habits were very bizarre—a combination of the diagonal method combined with single tip extractions" from the box, Palazzo writes in his blog post.

Encouraged by the results, Palazzo and his baymate decided to examine all the tip boxes in the lab. They discovered that the most widespread tip-usage method was the linear, ordered method. This is where the researcher removes tips in order along a single row. When a row is finished, the user then moves to the next row. Palazzo and his baymate dubbed this method the "anal-retentive tip-usage method," or ARTUM.

When quizzed, one postdoc confessed that he would secretly steal tips from a baymate, who was a devoted disciple of ARTUM. To avoid being caught, he would also take the tips in order. "Soon, the tip felon was practicing ARTUM on his own," Palazzo writes. "Obviously the ARTUM technique is very contagious and potentially addictive."

Alex Palazzo
Jesus: See his face?

Interspersed between the ARTUM boxes were the remains of very chaotic and seemingly random tip-usage strategies, says Palazzo, noting that he is setting up a camouflaged camera to "get to the bottom of some interesting tip-usage phenotypes." One box's tip-free region resembled a fish, which prompted Palazzo to ask whether a researcher had gone on a fishing expedition.

Palazzo has gotten many comments since his posting, mainly from ARTUM practitioners. His investigation continues, and he invites other researchers to submit photos of their tip-usage methods to him at

Admittedly, pipette tip usage patterns are pitifully pedestrian. But consider this: Some time ago, Palazzo's baymate announced that she had seen the face of Jesus in her silver-stained polyacrylamide gel. "Upon closer inspection, it looked like his face was partially obscured by some proteins," writes Palazzo. "We could kinda make out a nose, a mouth, and a beard. But where are his eyes? Curse that IgG!"

Palazzo and his baymate aren't finished making their profound observations in the lab. But their next discovery will likely have to wait until another lazy Friday afternoon.

This week's column was written by LInda Wang. Please send comments and suggestions to