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Low-Tech Lab Gadgets and Solutions: My All-Time Faves

Posted in: Equipment Mastery and Hacks
An image of a record player to depict lab gadgets and solutions.

For the record, as well as loving Red Dwarf, I’m a huge fan of MacGyver, the TV secret agent who could build any device from everyday items found in the room.

You name it…he could build it in 60 seconds or less using only the chewing gum and dental floss found in his pocket, escape impending demise, and have enough time left over to catch the bad guy as well.

As a result, one of my favorite things in the world is to be like MacGyver and figure out a cheaper or faster way to make or do something useful using everyday items.

So here is my top ten list of favorite lab MacGyverisms; ways to use everyday items to make gadgets and low-tech solutions for the lab that I’ve accumulated over my many years of working as a lab rat and writing tech articles.

10. Scoops or Measuring Cups = no more weighing. Do you weigh out yeast extract, NaCl, and agar for each bottle when preparing media? Save time by weighing the amount of powder that fits in a measuring cup or scoop and then adjust the volume of media in each of your flasks.

Designate one scoop for each powder added and just put one scoop of each per bottle. Weigh once…scoop forever after.

9. Straws = free Pasteur pipettes. Plastic straws lifted from fast-food chains can be used for dilutions and inoculations. This may take some experimentation, but I have done this for making hundreds of inoculations for a screening assay without ever having to buy expensive plastic pipettes.

Of all the varieties I tested, McD straws are the best and will actually survive autoclaving (wrapped in bunches of 20 inside aluminum foil!).

The trick is to use a consistent size test tube for dilutions and adjust the volume so that when the straw is placed into the tube, almost exactly 0.5-1.0 ml ends up in the straw.

You then place your finger over the open end and transfer the liquid. To release the payload, take your finger off the top.

In a similar vein, don’t forget about toothpicks or wooden stir sticks for replica plating.

8. Spaghetti Colander = no more dropped gels. Instead of using a spatula to move your gels from stain to rinse solutions and risk dropping your gel on the floor (butter-side down, of course), use a small plastic colander fitted inside of a bowl, and several bowls of the same size for the washes. That way you can just pick up the colander and move it to the next wash station.

7. Body wash or shampoo = cheap blot washes. Cheap liquid soap can be used for washings. Shampoo contains Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and can substitute for expensive wash solutions in many types of blots.

Don’t forget that you can use zip-loc baggies instead of a seal-a-meal for hybs too. To get all the air bubbles out, place a hollow stir straw in the corner and make sure all the bubbles go out the straw as you zip it up. Then slide the straw out while you cinch up the last little corner.

6. Instant Milk = long-life blocking agent. Powdered milk or cream liquor can be used as a casein-enriched blocking agent for your blots. It may not be any cheaper to use Bailey’s Blotting Juice, but there is an obvious added advantage, plus you never have any stale leftovers.

5. Petroleum Jelly = super-cheap hot start. ‘A little dab’ll do ya’ to “hot start” your Polymerase Chain Reactions. [see Horton et al, 1994]

4. Coffee Grinder = personal minifuge. You can use an old coffee grinder as a mini-centrifuge by modifying it to have rings for holding two Eppendorf tubes for quick spins. An old-fashioned hand-crank mixer or egg beater also works for this application.

If you use duct tape (not on the list since it is so obvious!) to hold it on a C-clamp, you can screw it onto the lab bench in any convenient location.

3. Toothpaste = DIY miniprep matrix. Some brands of toothpaste contain diatomaceous earth (Celite) as an abrasive. I’ve not tried this myself, but rumor has it that you can separate out the particles and use them as a matrix for binding DNA in mini-preps.

2. Furniture polish = fresh-smelling and silanized plates. Instead of using Rain-X for silanizing glass plates for polyacrylamide gels, use furniture polish. Spray on, wipe off. You also gain points for doing all the lab benches along the way and extra credit for using the lemon-scented variety to freshen up the place.

And the number one low-tech gizmo of all time is…

1. Record player = shaking incubator. Bob Horton’s homemade shaking incubator was fashioned out of an old-time record player. The plans were originally posted to the bionet methods and reagents bulletin board and highlighted in my monthly column in TiBS under the subtitle “Spin Doctor” [see Hengen, 1996]. A classic MacGyverism.

So what ingenious low-tech lab gadgets and solutions do you use in your lab?

For more tips, tricks, and hacks for getting your experiments done, check out the Bitesize Bio DIY in the Lab Hub.


1. Horton RM, Hoppe BL, Conti-Tronconi BM. 1994. AmpliGrease: “hot start” PCR using petroleum jelly. Biotechniques 16:42-43.

2. Hengen PN. 1996. Methods and reagents. Eliminating banding artifacts from SDS-PAGE. Trends in Biochemical Sciences 21:191-193.

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  1. liamloftus on November 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    I when worked on th ebench, i got frustrated with pulverizing samples with poor equipment, so I invented a gadget to deal with the issue.

    it is refreshingly low tech, you hit it with a hammer

  2. kcy on September 28, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    I do not trust my spec. thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Roberto on March 12, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    I’ve sometimes performed silver staining of 40-cm “sequencing-style” PAGE gels (for LOH studies). Having to use so much ultrapure sodium carbonate broke my heart every time. Until I noticed that 99% pure Na2CO3 is used to lower the pH of swimming pools, and can be found in many hardware stores at ridiculously cheap prices. I use it with very good results since then.

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