The kit that makes the science happen

Computer simulations and data science are playing an increasingly large role in biomedical research but hundreds of different physical tools are still used every day at the Crick. Every team has their own combination of high-tech, low-tech and even handmade equipment to make their science happen, but our scientists do sometimes play favourites. Here, three of our researchers share their pick for the one piece of kit that they couldn’t live without. 

Aaron Ferron

Aaron Ferron, Laboratory Research Scientist

Aaron Ferron

Aaron is part of our Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory and studies the body’s response to retroviruses like HIV.

“For my work on HIV, I need to be able to study the virus’ genes. I grow the genes myself and to do this, it’s essential to have a cell to grow them in. That’s where E. coli comes in.

When you expose E. coli to sudden heat changes when it’s near DNA, the E. coli can take that DNA, incorporate it into its cells and effectively grow it for you.

In my research, I could be studying a certain piece of DNA with antibiotic resistant genes and viral genes. I expose my E. coli and the DNA to a heat change and some of the E. coli cells will accept the DNA. I’ll then continue to grow the ones that did accept the DNA in a petri dish with sugars and antibiotics.

As I continue to grow the E. coli, my DNA will double or triple and also keep on growing. Eventually, I’ll destroy the E. coli cells and purify the DNA and I’ll have huge amounts of viral genes to use in the lab.”

Genevieve Barr

Genevieve Barr, PhD Student

Genevieve Barr

Genevieve is part of our Retroviral Replication Laboratory and studies how viruses infect and multiply within cells.

“My work involves modifying the genes of retroviruses, such as HIV, and seeing how these changes affect the ability of the virus to infect cells. I need to transport very small, precise amounts of DNA, proteins and viruses to do this and that’s why my tool is a pipette.

Because viruses are very small, we often to have move around incredibly small amounts. You might think that cells are small but viruses are many, many times smaller and you need an electron microscope to see them at all. 

The pipette means that we can move very small amounts of liquid and, importantly, know precisely how much we’re moving. There’s no point just throwing a virus at something! We have to know the exact amount of virus we use to infect cells if we’re going to be able to measure the effects of any changes we’ve made.

If the virus can’t infect cells as well as it used to after we’ve modified a gene, we know that the gene’s protein is important and we gradually build a clearer picture of how the virus works.”

Alice Carty

Alice Carty, PhD Student

Alice Carty

Alice is part of our Single Molecule Enzymology Laboratory and studies the physical forces within cells.

“Every single cell in the human body has about two metres of DNA inside it. Clearly none of our cells are two metres in size so there has to be a way of folding and organising the DNA. I use physics to create a simple system to model this in the lab and that’s why my tool is a magnet.

This process of folding and organising DNA is called DNA compaction. One of the interesting things about how we study DNA compaction is that we have to extend the DNA by stretching it first before we can compact it.

In my experiments, we stick one end of a piece of DNA to a microscope slide and attach a tiny magnet to the other end. These magnets that are actually only one micron, or a thousandth of a millimetre, wide.

We then use a bigger magnet to attract the small magnet and stretch the DNA. It’s one of the best ways that we have to apply a wide range of forces as we can control the distance between the two magnets and vary the strengths of the forces.”


Aaron, Genevieve and Alice took part in a panel show at our Crick Late where they each made a pitch for their chosen tool and battled it out for the audience's vote.

For the full story on the panellists’ tools and to hear how they handled our audience’s questions, watch the video of our event live stream here. 


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