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What is a laboratory?

When most people think of a scientific laboratory, they picture images similar to those shown here. And it's true that a laboratory must be a controlled environment, but what if certain studies cannot be done in that environment. How do you observe penguins or elephants in their natural environments? What is the lab then?

The Laboratory

A laboratory is a place that has controlled conditions in which scientific research, experiments, and measurement may be carried out. Scientific laboratories can be found in schools and universities, in industry, in government facilities, and even aboard ships and spacecraft, such as the one shown in Figure below .

Labs are not always Earth-bound, like the biochemistry lab to the left is. This astronaut is working in a lab on the International Space Station (right).

Because of the different areas of science, there are many different types of science labs that each include different scientific equipment. For example, a physics lab might contain a particle accelerator, in which the particles that make up atoms are studied. A chemistry or biology lab most likely contains a fume hood where substances with poisonous fumes can be worked. A particle accelerator and a fume hood are both shown in Figure below . Despite the great differences among labs, some features are common in them.

Most labs have workbenches or countertops at which the scientist may sit or stand to do work comfortably. This is important because scientists can spend all day working in the lab. A scientist usually records an experiment's progress in a lab notebook, but modern labs almost always contain a computer for data collection and analysis. In many labs computers are also used for lab simulations (modeling or imitating an experiment or a natural process), and for presenting results in the form of graphs or tables.

Different fields of science need different types of equipment, such as the particle accelerator at left, found in a physics lab, and the fume hood, at right, found in chemistry labs, but also sometimes in biology labs.

View http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/aircraft/DC-8/index.html to read about a flying DC-8 laboratory.

Lab Equipment

Lab techniques include the procedures used in science to carry out an experiment. Lab techniques follow scientific methods, and while some of them involve the use of simple laboratory equipment such as glassware (shown on the shelves in Figure above ), others use more complex and expensive equipment such as electrical and computerized machines such as the particle accelerator shown in Figure above , or use expensive supplies.

Equipment commonly found in biology labs include microscopes, weighing scales or balances, water baths, glassware (such as test tubes, flasks, and beakers), Bunsen burners, pipettes shown in Figure below , chemical reagents, and equipment such as centrifuges and PCR machines.

Pipettes are small, but important tools in many biology labs. Micropipettes, such as these here, are calibrated to measure very small amounts of liquids. For example, 100 microliters (100 µL) which is about half the volume of your little finger tip; or even 1 µL, which is much smaller than a drop of water.

Light Microscopes

Microscopes are instruments used to view objects that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Optical microscopes , such as the one shown in Figure below , use visible light and lenses to magnify objects. They are the simplest and most widely used type of microscopes. Compound microscopes are optical microscopes which have a series of lenses, the ocular lens (in the eyepiece) and the objective lenses (close to the sample). These microscopes have uses in many fields of science, particularly biology and geology. The scientist in Figure below is looking through a stereo microscope (notice the two lenses). This type of microscope uses the two lenses to produce a three-dimensional visualization of the sample being examined.

Compound light microscopes use lenses to focus light. Typical magnification of a light microscope is up to 1500x. The various parts of the microscope are labeled. This specifically is a phase contrast microscope. Phase contrast microscopy is particularly important in biology, as it reveals many cellular structures that are not visible with a simpler bright field microscope.

This scientist is using a stereo microscope, which is a light microscope with two ocular lenses.

Resolution is a measure of the clarity of an image; it is the minimum distance two points can be separated and still be distinguished as two separate points. Because light beams have a physical size, which is described in wavelengths, it is difficult to see an object that is about the same size or smaller than the wavelength of light. Objects smaller than about 0.2 micrometers appear fuzzy, and objects below that size cannot be seen.

Magnification involves enlarging the image of an object so that it appears much bigger than its actual size. Magnification also refers to the number of times an object is magnified. For example, a lens that magnifies 100X, magnifies an object 100 times larger than its actual size. Light microscopes have three objective lenses that have different magnifications, as shown in Figure below . The ocular lens has a magnification of 10X, so a 100X objective lens and the ocular lens together will magnify an object by 1000X.

Objective lenses of a light microscope.

Objective lenses of a light microscope.

Visible light has wavelengths of 400 to 700 nanometers, which is larger than many objects of interest such as the insides of cells. Scientists use different types of microscopes in order to get better resolution and magnification of objects that are smaller than the wavelength of visible light. Objects that are to be viewed under an electron microscope may need to be specially prepared to make them suitable for magnification.

Electron Microscopes

Electron microscopes use electrons instead of photons (light), because electrons have a much shorter wavelength than photons and thus allow a researcher to see things at very high magnification, far higher than an optical microscope can possibly magnify.

There are two general types of electron microscopes: the Transmission Electron Microscope that shoots electrons through the sample and measures how the electron beam changes because it is scattered in the sample, and the Scanning Electron Microscope that scans an electron beam over the surface of an object and measures how many electrons are scattered back.

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is an imaging method in which a beam of electrons is passed through a specimen. An image is formed on photographic film or a fluorescent screen by the electrons that scatter when passing through the object. TEM images show the inside of the object.

The scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of electron microscope capable of producing high-resolution images of a sample surface. Due to the manner in which the image is created, SEM images have a characteristic three-dimensional appearance and are useful for judging the surface structure of the sample. Sometimes objects need to be specially prepared to make them better suited for imaging under the scanning electron microscope, as shown with the insect in Figure below .

Electron microscopes work under low pressures and usually in a vacuum chamber to avoid scattering the electrons in the gas. This makes the microscopes considerably larger and more expensive than optical microscopes. The different types of images from the two electron microscopes are shown in Figure below . Zoom into a Leaf at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4mtsz_zoom-into-a-leaf_tech .

This fish has been coated in gold, as part of the preparation for viewing with an SEM.

SEM and TEM images of the algae Chlamydomonas . The SEM image, shown at the right, is a three-dimensional image of the surface of the organism, whereas the TEM image is a two-dimensional image of the interior of the organism.

Aseptic Technique

In the microbiology lab, aseptic technique refers to the procedures that are carried out under sterile conditions. Scientists who study microbes are called microbiologists. Microbiologists must carry out their lab work using the aseptic technique to prevent microbial contamination of themselves, contamination of the environment they are working in, including work surfaces or equipment, and contamination of the sample they are working on. Bacteria live on just about every surface on Earth, so if a scientist wants to grow a particular type of bacterium in the lab, he or she needs to be able to sterilize their equipment to prevent contamination by other bacteria or microorganisms. The aseptic technique is also used in medicine, where it is important to keep the human body free of contamination.

Aseptic technique is used whenever bacteria or other microbes are transferred between nutrient media or in the preparation of the nutrient media. Some equipment that is used in the aseptic technique include a Bunsen burner, an autoclave ( Figure below ), hand and surface sanitizers, neoprene gloves, and a fume hood.

Students of microbiology are taught the principles of aseptic technique by hands-on laboratory practice. Practice is essential in learning how to handle the lab tools without contaminating them.

A worktop autoclave. Autoclaves commonly use steam heated to 121°C (250°F), at 103 kPa (15 psi) above atmospheric pressure. Solid surfaces are effectively sterilized when heated to this temperature. Liquids can also be sterilized by this process, though additional time is required to reach sterilizing temperature.

Lab Safety

In some laboratories, conditions are no more dangerous than in any other room. In many labs, though, additional hazards are present. Laboratory hazards are as varied as the subjects of study in laboratories, and might include poisons, infectious agents, flammable, explosive, or radioactive materials, moving machinery, extreme temperatures, or high voltage. The hazard symbols for corrosive, explosive, and flammable substances are shown in Figure below . In laboratories where conditions might be dangerous, safety precautions are important. Lab safety rules minimize a person’s risk of getting hurt, and safety equipment is used to protect the lab user from injury or to help in responding to an emergency.

The hazard symbols for corrosive, explosive, and flammable substances.

Immediate disposal of used needles, and other sharp equipment into a sharps container is standard procedure.

Some safety equipment that you might find in a biology lab includes:

  • Sharps Container : A container that is filled with used medical needles and other sharp instruments such as blades, shown in Figure above . Needles or other sharp items that have been used are dropped into the container without touching the outside of the container. Objects should never be pushed or forced into the container, as damage to the container or injuries may result.
  • Laminar Flow Cabinet : A carefully enclosed bench designed to prevent contamination of biological samples. Air is drawn through a fine filter and blown in a very smooth, laminar (streamlined) flow towards the user. The cabinet is usually made of stainless steel with no gaps or joints where microorganisms might collect.
  • Gloves : Due to possible allergic reactions to latex, latex gloves are not recommended for lab use. Instead, vinyl or nitrile gloves, shown in Figure below , are often used. Gloves protect the wearers hands and skin from getting contaminated by microorganisms or stained or irritated by chemicals.

A nitrile glove. Latex gloves are no longer recommended so vinyl gloves or nitrile gloves, which are usually green or blue in color, are preferred.

  • Lab Coat : A knee-length overcoat that is usually worn while working in the lab. The coat helps to protect the researcher’s clothes from splashes or contamination. The garment is made from white cotton or linen to allow it to be washed at high temperature and make it easy to see if it is clean.

Safe Laboratory Practice

Safety precautions are in place to help prevent accidents. Always wear personal protective equipment such as goggles and gloves when recommended to do so by your teacher.

  • Tell your teacher immediately if an accident happens.
  • The production of aerosols due to poor technique such as squirting the last drop out of pipettes, and the spread of contamination due to spills is completely avoidable and especially important if you are handling infectious material or chemicals.
  • Wear enclosed toe shoes, instead of sandals or flip flops, or thongs ( Figure below ). Your feet and toes could easily get hurt or broken or if you dropped something.
  • Do not wear loose, floppy clothes in the lab; they can get caught in or knock over equipment, causing an accident.
  • If you have long hair, tie it up for the same reasons listed above.
  • Do not eat or drink in the lab.
  • Do not use cell phones in the lab, even if you are only sending a text message. You can easily contaminate your phone with whatever you have been working with. Consider where your hands have been, and where your face will be the next time you talk on the phone.
  • Sweep up broken glass immediately and dispose in a designated area or container, or notify your teacher.
  • Always listen carefully to your teacher’s instructions.

Although they may be comfy and casual, flip-flops and other open-toed shoes are not suitable footwear in the lab.

Accidents

In the case of an accident, it is important to begin by telling your teacher and to know where to find safety equipment.

Some common safety equipment in a school lab:

  • Fire Extinguishers
  • Fire Blanket
  • Eye-Wash Fountain ( Figure below )
  • First-Aid Kit

Symbol for the eyewash fountain.

Through the first three lessons, we have discussed what science is and how science is done. Now we need to turn our attention to Biology. Biology is the study of life. As the ‘study of life,’ a knowledge of biology is an extremely important aspect of your education. Biology includes the identification and analysis of characteristics common to all living organisms. What is known about biology is discovered or identified through the same processes as all other sciences, including the scientific method and peer review process.

Vocabulary

  • aseptic technique : Laboratory procedures that are carried out under sterile conditions.
  • compound microscope : An optical microscopes that has a series of lenses; has uses in many fields of science, particularly biology and geology.
  • electron microscope : A microscope that uses electrons instead of light; allows a researcher to see things at very high magnification, far higher than an optical microscope can possibly magnify.
  • lab techniques : The procedures used in science to carry out an experiment.
  • laboratory : A place with controlled conditions in which scientific research, experiments, and measurement can be carried out.
  • magnification : Enlarging an image of an object so that it appears much bigger than its actual size; also refers to the number of times an object is magnified.
  • microscope : An instrument used to view objects that are too small to be seen by the naked eye.
  • optical microscope : A microscope that uses visible light and lenses to magnify objects.
  • resolution : A measure of the clarity of an image; the minimum distance that two points can be separated and still be distinguished as two separate points.
  • scanning electron microscope (SEM) : Electron microscope that scans an electron beam over the surface of an object; measures how many electrons are scattered back.
  • transmission electron microscope (TEM) : Electron microscope that shoots electrons through the sample; measures how the electron beam changes because it is scattered in the sample.

Summary

  • Equipment commonly found in a biology labs include microscopes, weighing scales or balances, water baths, glassware (such as test tubes, flasks, and beakers), Bunsen burners, tongs, pipettes, chemical reagents, lab coats, goggles, and biohazard waste containers.
  • Always wear personal protective equipment such as goggles and gloves, wear enclosed shoes, and do not eat or drink in the lab.

Practice

Use this resource to answer the question that follows.

  1. List the laboratory rules described in this video.

Review

  1. What is a laboratory? Where can they be found?
  2. What is the main difference between a light microscope and an electron microscope.
  3. What is an aseptic technique and what equipment does it require?
  4. Name three pieces of safety equipment that you should wear while carrying out an investigation in the lab.
  5. What should you first do if an accident happens in the lab?
  6. If you saw this hazard sign on a chemical container, what do you think it might mean?

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