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David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
Toronto Ontario CAN

David Manly is a freelance journalist who will blog about a wide range of topics that all fall under the umbrella of zoology and ecology. While his expertise lies with reptiles and amphibians, he has a wide array of knowledge and interest in all animal species - from the sponge to the great ape. He hopes you will enjoy his blog, as he plans to make it both entertaining and enjoyable (as well as fill it with interesting facts, tidbits, photos and videos).

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hooray for Lab Spaces theme days!

The theme for today, if you haven’t already guessed, is the biggest lab mistake that you’ve ever done. And I have two really interesting stories to share with you. One I was (accidentally) responsible for, and one which still mystifies me and my lab mates to this very day!

Back in my undergrad, I started working in a lab the summer before my thesis began, so that I could learn all the procedures and protocol’s before I officially began. Therefore, when I had to start my thesis officially, I could just jump right in!

One of the most painstaking things to learn and master was crafting and developing proper buffer solutions for various experiments that I was running. The assays were always so finicky, that even if you did everything right, the experiment was still not guaranteed to work.

One day, I was titrating (basically changing a solutions pH) a buffer to its proper pH using hydrochloric acid. The procedure was simple, and one that I had done hundreds of times.

You place the solution into a beaker, add a magnetic stirrer, switch it on, insert a pH probe and start to slowly add HCl drop by drop by drop. It’s a boring process, as the pH will lower dramatically, and then stabilize almost back to the original starting pH. So, it takes a looong time.

One day, I was not paying attention while holding the HCl dropper, and sneezed. And when I say sneeze, I mean a big ACHOOOOOO! And, as anyone who has ever sneezed knows, all the muscles in your body contract … even those in your hands.

Shocked that I put an entire eyedropper of HCl into my buffer, I looked down at the pH meter that, just a moment ago, had been at a respectable 8.

DAMN! DAMN! It went all the way down to a pH of two!!!

I immediately reached for the NaOH to balance it out, but I was in denial. The experiment was already a wash, but I could not admit it to myself. I was sure that if I could get the solution back it is needed pH, I could salvage the experiment.

I still did the entire assay using my ruined solution, which amazingly did not work. You can imagine my surprise!

When I told my supervisor, he just smiled, laughed and subtly suggested that from then on, I should always take allergy pills before going to the lab.

Suffice to say, I was the lab joke for weeks, and it was just starting to disappear, when the next epic failure happened.


During that summer, I was also raising frogs for use in my thesis. The frogs that I was using, albino Xenopus laevis, are expensive to buy as adults but cheap as juveniles, so I had to take care of the young frogs during the summer.

Every morning, I would take a chunk of frozen brine shrimp of blood worms, melt them in distilled water and feed them to my 100 or so frogs via a plastic pipette. It was an ugly site to see, as they are not the most aesthetically pleasing animals (as evidenced by the picture below).

I spent months feeding the young frogs so that they could grow large enough for my thesis, which focused on salinity tolerance and protein expression.

One Friday, I told my supervisor that I would not be coming in on the weekend to feed them, but that someone else had agreed to do it. I instructed them how and all was well.

The following Monday, I prepared the food and walked into the storage area where the tanks were. Tanks one through three were normal, but when I reached tank four, I was stopped dead in my tracks. There were significantly fewer frogs than I remembered.

I checked my log sheet, and there were 23 frogs in that tank, as two had died of natural causes (three cheers for necropsies!). But there were only six in the tank!

I repeat, in a tank that had 23 frogs, there were only 6 remaining. What happened to the other 17 frogs?

So, in a fit of panic, I called my supervisor over, and he confirmed that the lab mate had indeed fed the frogs that weekend. In fact, he was just as confused as I.

That was, until he made a startling revelation.

One of the surviving frogs in tank four was much, much bigger than all the others. At least twice as big! It was a monster.

Therefore, there was only one conclusion to be made: Somehow and someway, I turned a Xenopus frog cannibalistic, so that it ate almost all the other frogs present.

To this day, my lab mates and I still discuss the amazing frog that resulted from that aberration. No other frogs became cannibalistic throughout my entire experiment, and the frog that did reverted to his normal state quickly. In fact, he continued to grow!

But, on the bright side, after the experiment was concluded and I dissected all the frogs, that one frog provided so much data!

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David- that is so funny. You couldn't hold back your sneeze? I can't imagine sneezing with a dropper full of HCl in my hand.

On the frogs, I think the student taking care of them took some of them home. No way one frog ate 17. It would die for sure. Did you ask the student about it?

David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
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Haha, it was one of those unexpected sneezes. You know, you have less than a second to react. And, I will admit, I chose poorly.

After a long, long conversation with my supervisor and a PhD student friend, we decided that the frog probably ate about 3-4 and that the reaming frogs MUST have escaped towards freedom. But, we scowered the room up and down and found no trace of the frogs.

Hence why it is still a mystery ...

Lab Mom
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Well, can you blame him? Frog's legs are a delicacy!

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Xenopus are not brilliant animals, but are known to be effective escape artists ... I wouldn't be surprised if at some point, dessicated frog bodies are found under refrigerators or other places in the lab!


Neil Losin
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Heh... I didn't know Xenopus would eat each other, their mouths are so small. I used to have a Ceratophrys sp. "Pac Man Frog" and THOSE things will definitely chomp each other given the opportunity.

I second the idea that someone will probably find some dessicated frogs in the lab someday... I mean, cannibalistic or not, eating 17 of your comrades in one weekend seems a bit much :)

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