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My biggest lab mistake: Autoclaving 101
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

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

I was trying to think back to my biggest lab mistake and although I have had quite a few minor mishaps (mis-loading lanes for a Western blot, not adding the right controls for a Q-RT-PCR) that lead to disastrous scientific outcomes (i.e. repeating weeks worth of sample acquisition), those mistakes aren't as entertaining as the one I have decided to feature.

Let me set the scene.  I was working as a technician straight out of my undergrad.  I had been with the lab for a few years and one of duties was autoclaving glassware, pipette tips etc.  Simple grunt work.

Or so you would think.

During my tenure with this lab we actually relocated our lab space to a brand new building and a few weeks after moving in they installed brand new autoclaves for our department.  Ooohh Ahhh.  They were state of the art, brand new and shiny (no gross brown stains, nothing oozing out of the seams, no strange odors at start up) and they came pre-programmed with standard dry and wet runs.  Pretty dummy proof.

Or so you would think.

I was actually excited to throw in my load of glassware and break in the virgin autoclave.  I loaded the beakers and flasks into the Nalgene pans we had always used for autoclaving, pressed 'Dry cycle' and away I went.  "Damn, we should hire an undergrad to do this.. any boob can do it."

Or so I thought.

I returned to the autoclave a few hours later and was greeted with the most god-awful smell.  I immediately knew something was wrong.  I quickly opened the (no longer brand new shiny) door and almost passed out.  There, lying directly on the autoclave rack was all my glassware, and underneath where the autoclave tray used to be?  Well, it looked like the aftermath of Ghostbusters v. The Stay Puft Marshmallow man:

The gigantic tub had completely melted and there was plastic hanging down from the rack, oozing down the walls and pooled on the bottom.  It had re-solidified and was like concrete. Some of the glassware had been fused to the rack and so there it was, in full glory for all to see, the name of my lab.

Now everyone was going to know which boob trashed the brand new autoclave.  I was so embarrassed.

In case you didn't realize it, Nalgene should only be autoclaved at 121 degrees. 99% of autoclaves use 121 degrees as their standard sterilization temperature, but it turns out that this autoclave was set at 134 degrees (often used for viruses and other highly resistant agents.)  No other autoclaves I had ever worked with used 134 as a pre-set, only as a programmable option.

I am sure I am not the only one who has ever made this mistake.  In fact there is evidence out there which proves that assumption correct, but I bet I am the first person to ever do it in a autoclave.

The department called Stericycle and they sent someone to remove the plastic, but the autoclave was out of commission for at least 2 weeks, and even the plastic was gone it was never the same.   The machine had lost it's shine.  The inside was permanently discolored and there was a funny chemical smell when you opened the door.

From that day forward I ALWAYS checked the cycle conditions on the autoclave.

This disaster occurred nearly 15 years ago and even though I do a lot less autoclaving now, it has forever changed the way I supervise autoclaving as lab manager.  I have switched over to using stainless steel autoclave baskets in order to ensure that this won't happen to anyone else (like the lowly undergrad summer help or new graduate student who may not be as vigilant about checking the autoclave settings.)

I try to use my mistake to make autoclaving so easy a caveman could do it.

Or so you would think.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Now you know why autoclaves look all gross and nasty.  Some n00b screwed up their cycle and made it that way!

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That's a really tough mistake to make. But really, the manufacturer should not leave the machine there with a default of 134 degrees. And if they did, they should ask if you have the correct pans or trays, or I am sure they sell them, they should know if you don't have them.

I wouldn't have felt bad about bitching out the company on this one.

David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
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The VERY SAME mistake almost happened in a lab where I worked. Luckily, a lab tech noticed it just in time before our autoclave was out of comission as well.

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We had someone do that at my lab. Funny thing was that you could still read the 'Do Not Autoclave' on the side of the bin after it had melted.


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That's a sad story, but I think these types of things can easily happen when we all aren't situationally aware. I know of a lab where I could see this type of thing happening, because no one trains anyone in the lab. It has lead to a bunch of contamination issues that hurt everyone. At least you have thought of a way of preventing this from happening again.


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LOL we have a tray with hybridized plastic stalactites frozen off the rungs as a warning to those who autoclave :) (love the ghostbusters ref btw!!)

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I haven't seen this done to an autoclave yet but back at the prestigious U. of Big Shots one of our postdocs autoclaved his tips and it was common practice to put them in the little oven next to it for the to dry. Somebody from another dept had come to use our equipment to bake pasteurs and didn't reset the temp.  Postdoc didn't quite check.   An hour or so later with a lovely noxious fuming frangrance permeating the hall, we had a nice stringy art project to decorate the lab!  To his credit, the postdoc scraped out the material and had a good laugh.


The next time we had any experience with something burning, we had to call the fire department though!


Shashank Shekhar

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Yes . This reminds me of todays wonderful morning. Screwed up the autoclave by using falcon tubes on te stainless steel basket. Undergrad researcher at the lab, damn my advisor is going to screw me, just hope he doesnt throw me out of the lab or something :/

Shawn Russell
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It must have been a horrifying accident for you! Not only was it considered a disaster but it occurred on a new and shiny piece of autoclave too! I cannot imagine what my extremely fierce boss would have done to me if I were in your position! However, I think it was just another day at work for you, because mis-loading lanes for a Western blot, not adding the right controls for a Q-RT-PCR, both seem like an even more severe mistakes to commit. Well, they do say 'learn from your mistakes and move on'.

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