When lab safety goes wrong.


Aseptic technique in the microbiology lab is really important with the main aim being to avoid contamination.  Even in the lab there is risk of contamination everywhere, especially when working with highly contagious strains of bacteria. This contamination can be incredibly irritating, expensive and even disastrous.  Contamination risks are everywhere. They are present in the air as airborne microorganisms, on our bodies as dust and other particles and even on lab equipment and surfaces.[1] Proper aseptic technique should reduce the chances of contamination of your experiment and most importantly keep your lab technician happy. This is because it means that resources aren’t wasted and you don’t have to repeat experiments for trivial reasons. It will also maintain the purity of stock samples.

Proper aseptic technique is important for safety in the lab in order to prevent infection and contamination of the environment and people in the lab. In our lab we are working with bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that infects and kills specific bacteria.

I now understand the importance of this technique after what I believed to be was my beloved first found phage actually turned out to be a form of contamination. In our experience in the lab, we have begun to understand and appreciate the importance of aseptic technique. This technique was new to me and took some getting used to. I often dropped lids and put my hand or sleeve to close to the Bunsen burner flame. Aseptic technique  was especially important in our lab as when working with unique phages, it is important to make sure there is no cross contaminations between individuals work.  We were lucky that there was no cross contamination between individuals and no one ended up with the same phage due to contamination. Thankfully our aseptic technique was up to scratch.

Phages were in fact first discovered by contamination by Frederick William Twort. In 1915 he discovered plaques on his agar plates.[2] Contamination not only leaves opportunities for many new discoveries, it also is the cause of many issues. Only a month ago, the CDC centre for disease control made headlines after 84 laboratory workers were exposed to a potentially deadly strain of anthrax. An investigation into the incident found that the lab was using expired disinfectant and were storing samples in unlocked freezes in unrestricted areas. Fortunately, this outbreak was contained.[3] In other cases, people weren’t so lucky. In 1977 there was an outbreak of influenza in China which spread globally but luckily the virus only caused which caused moderate symptoms such as a light fever.  In another instance, the famous foot and mouth outbreak, which began in Britain from a biosafety lab and caused billions of dollars in damage. This particular disease is spread by cloven-hoofed animals and in the end required over 1500 animals to be culled.[4]

In our lab we work with Mycobacterium Smegmatis. We use this as a bacteria host as it has a similar make up to Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, also know as TB. There are obvious reasons as to why we do not use TB in our labs. TB is highly contagious and is a dangerous bacteria that causes around 1.8 million deaths world wide.[5] This is one of the main reasons we don’t use it and as newbie lab scientists, our aseptic technique would not be sufficient to quantify the risk. This is why we hope to find a phase that can infect Mycobacterium Smegmatis and therefore might also be able to infect and cure TB patients.



  1. Aseptic Technique and the Transfer of Microorganisms. 2016.
  2. jcturnbullnz, The Pioneers of Phage Virology. 2017.
  3. Newly disclosed CDC biolab failures ‘like a screenplay for a disaster movie. 2016.
  4. BENDER, J., Here Are 5 Times Infectious Diseases Escaped From Laboratory Containment. 2014.
  5. Tuberculosis. 2017.
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One Response to When lab safety goes wrong.

  1. jcturnbullnz says:

    Hey James, I enjoyed reading your post – it was great hearing a bit more about a topic i touched on in my first blog, which i’m glad was of use to you in writing this one. It’s interesting how contamination can be a disaster, or sometimes the source of a breakthrough (even if that breakthrough isn’t necessarily in regards to the issue you’re investigating)

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