Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All laboratory research ever has just been invalidated

Well, not quite.

Researchers have found that ordinary laboratory plastics contain contaminants that can greatly affect results of biochemical and other research.

Two things:

1. Of course they do! Plastics and the things we put in them are organic molecules, and biological systems use organic molecules extensively.
2. Why hadn't researchers, or more importantly, manufacturers, thought of this before? I know some definitely have, but

This makes me think of classic situations where one person gets results that no one else can replicate under supposedly the same conditions, or someone gets a result once and can never repeat it, or cells that were happily maintained spontaneously die with no discernible reason. I know that in my experience that if needed, different types of tubes, tips, can typically be used interchangeably, without needing to worry about controlling for this source of variation.

The good news is that researchers can hopefully take this effect into account and more effectively troubleshoot, finding the sources of error. Who knows, this could even reverse some file-drawering, and research "cold cases" could be reinvestigated if whatever shelved the research may have been plastic contaminants.

The bad news is this opens the possibility for some published research to actually be incorrect, as a common (and necessary) assumption in research is that your tools and implements are essentially contaminant-free.

Though this comes as a big "duh" moment, i.e. no one can be too surprised that this is the case, the publication of real data shows that plastic contaminants can be a real problem. In the past researchers by and large haven't been too concerned about this possibility. Maybe now they should be.

Science 322 (5903): 917

On Wired:

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