Homeopathic PCR

Anyone who has purified genomic DNA and tried to PCR a gene out of it will probably be familiar with the notion of diluting it a lot to get your gene out. Being undergrads, we were not. Having spent several intense days fruitlessly increasing the concentration of DNA to frantically try and get The Gene (a gene which we needed…four weeks ago) we went on the long pilgrimage to the interweb forums of sage advice.

Naturally, because it’s so obvious, if you want more product (or any, in our case) you reduce the amount of DNA. It didn’t work. We swallowed our pride and got help from Christine. (She always dresses so well, and seems to like purple. Kudos.) She told us you sometimes need about one part per million to get anything out. Homeopathic molecular biology! Crazy. Armed with this knowledge, we strode back into the lab and began the fight. The PCR machine broke.

We’re taking this all in our stride. This is meant to be the ‘Nothing’s done. Nothing works. It keeps going horrifically wrong. OhmygoshIamsuchafailureeveryonewillhatemebecauseIcan’tbiobrick’ stage. It’s cool. We deal with it. Because otherwise, we would go deranged and Freddie would start living on the doorstep of the innovation centre cafe like a peculiar moneyed tramp while Ryan…continued to be Ryan. In any case, Freddie and I had great success with our first construct. Did I mention? It was, like, sixty bases long? Or forty. Maybe more like two. And we still got them to stick together anyway. We’re amazing, we just need PCR machines to stop conspiring against us. The tossers.

Mary B.



I meant to mention, in that last post, that Tom Ellis gave a really interesting and useful talk at the UK meetup, but I forgot. Well, he did. Watch it online. Or just watch ours, whatever.
Also, I wanted to talk about Leicester. Well actually, about Tom Howard. But it starts with Leicester: While their sponsored walk looked fun, and you could potentially get a lot of money from a bake sale (like my primary school. Insane. Were there blood diamonds in those cakes? How else could it have been achieved?) I am enormously grateful that Dr Thomas Howard has been ruthlessly able to get enough funding for us to cheerfully take it for granted (although it was granted, so it’s not unjustified to take it as such…anyway). And so many generous members of the department. We have such an enthusiastic bunch of people at this university. A few really irritating people, but on the whole, at the moment, I’m feeling rather fond of everyone.
I hope Leicester have enough to see them through, I really do. They seemed like a nice bunch.


Yours sentimentally,
Mary B.

Postmodern Ironic

If you want to know what four o’clock in the morning on Friday the seventeenth of August, two thousand and twelve was like, here is my summary:

Wet. Cold. Very dark. For some reason everything was preposterously funny, even when the minibus didn’t turn up until half five. Unusual entertainments were provided on the journey, largely in the form of Becca putting her makeup on which fascinated the guys.

We arrived at the Google Campus in a timely fashion, despite the late minibus. If you haven’t been there yourself or seen photos, I would describe it for you as distressed industrial with quirky ironic features and several throwbacks to an era of stark, aesthetic postmodernism (n.b. my quick online attempt to become an expert on understanding interior design was not successful, but feel free to use these randomly connected words if you also wish to pretend you’re a well-informed person.)

Our presentation was frankly beautiful. Frankly. Honestly. Movingly beautiful. I thought. But really, we have selected three excellent speakers and we didn’t use a boring PowerPoint (no offence, Microsoft. Want to sponsor us…?) And Tom whipped the whole thing into shape. Narrative beauty. Visual delights. Wonder. Excitement. Hooraaaaaaay! It could not get more amazing, until I realise that I get to see the whole thing once more in Amsterdam. Pass me a handkerchief, and catch me if I should faint from joy!

Today I am in a room with Ryan and Freddie. They push the elastic limits of my admittedly small and moderate quantity of the abstract and sublimely ridiculous, with their abject nonsense. Freddie is currently whistling overexcitably. In a minute we will probably have another rendition of the Wombles theme tune, sung for all of the Biosciences building to hear. Bizarre.

Mary B.


Apparently we have to meet at 4.30 AM on Friday morning. The reason for the meeting is to travel to the iGEM UK meetup, generously hosted by Google at the Google Campus. The reason for 4.30 is less certain, it’s believed the gentleman operating the mode of transport is responsible for insisting on that unappreciated point.

But time, as Alex B. told myself and Alex Clowsley earlier, is entirely fictitious. It is intangible and you cannot experience it, therefore someone made it up. I feel he is mixing up the notions of time as a dimension and times as a human construct. But fictional or real, I think 4.30 on Friday morning is going to either feel very real, or I will miraculously be asleep.

In other news, Freddie dragged himself onto campus this morning, mumbling incoherently, hair askew and peering dazedly out at the world. Poor darling. He is rather ill, but bravely trooped in to join the team in the noble fight. He has been sent home to recover. I expect him to unnecessarily apologise for days.


Mary B.

Quantum Determinism.

If all people were removed from the universe, would the perfect square exist? Would fifteen and three exist? Would it be fated that Andy Corbett would still scare me into a small ball of fear on my chair with difficult maths and philosophy questions? And how is a girl to get on with writing up a presentation if, instead, she is worrying about the universe and predestination?

Liam is predestined to go to America this weekend. For a whole year. Woe. We have had an party complete with American sweets and a repressilator cake to celebrate GlycoWeb going online and say goodbye to Liam, who has been wonderful. (Hint to Amsterdam judges – if you send us to Boston, we will get to see Liam again, so we’d really really like to go, please.)

Right, I ought to get on with stuff. Get back, ye tide of existential questions! The dark fire will not avail you!

Yeah that’s right, I don’t have time for deep thought. Get lost. I have a job to do.

Freddie’s repressilator cake.


Mary B.


The number of posts I put on this blog is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend in the lab. Curious. Currently we are waiting while¬†E. coli are frostily lulled into a false sense of security, so when there is a knock on their door and a genial looking plasmid salesman is revealed on the doorstep to say ‘Hallo guv, would you be interested in some new genes? Innit?’ they will foolishly invite him into their home. And offer him fruitcake. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

The human practices panel was…a mixed success? It didn’t go as cleanly as hoped, mainly because we’ve never done this before. On the upside, A Great And Mighty Horde of eminent staff members appeared, and their feedback was essential. Tom assures us it is a good thing. We have learned much from their challenging questions, and are gaining ground on the winding road to wisdom.

Freddie is giggling to himself from the other computer; I think he may be mad. It is depressing that I have to work with such weirdos, they are incompatible with my high level of seriousity.


Mary B.


I’m currently sitting in a lecture theatre with enough food to fill an Olympic swimming pool (salutations, Alex’s parents! Your baking efforts are greatly appreciated!) and somehow the iGEM team have managed to squeeze in too. In order to hold the human practices meeting, which is imminent, we may have to eat through half of the butterfly cakes in the next five minutes so we can fit a handful of sustainability experts etc. in.

No, I take this back. We’ve just had an influx of people. The food is going rapidly.

Mary B.

The Epiphany Room

It’s a quiet Wednesday morning. In the spirit of British summer, it is tipping it down outside, and soon I’m going to have to walk up to campus in that weather. At the moment, I’m working at home. One of the slightly unfortunate things about being the first iGEM team for the university is that I’m not sure people know we exist. Despite having been delightfully able to sail into research without having to tell funding bodies how important it is first, we sometimes aren’t given a room when Researchers-Of-Vital-Things need it instead. As such, someone More Important Than Us has booked room 108, and our second home of choice isn’t free until the afternoon. Maybe if we get to the Boston final they’ll donate a room to next years team. Maybe they’ll call it the Mary Beton Synthetic Biology Epiphany Room (Note to College of Life and Environmental Sciences – the room name really has a charming ring to it, doesn’t it?).

We had another work experience student with us yesterday. She’s called Sophie and she’s lovely. It’s absolutely brilliant practise for us to have loads of people to coherently explain our concept to, which is why I always leave it to Freddie.

Some unmentioned delay is preventing our last few genes from reaching us, so we haven’t been able to really get started on the core of the project yet. With only four weeks to go, I have not got a good feeling about this…


Mary B.