How do you set up a new molecular genetics lab?
August 27, 2011 5:29 PM   Subscribe

A question for all the molecular geneticists out there: how did you go about setting up your first lab?

I am particularly interested in the following specific issues:

~ how did you decide on what (and how much) equipment to get?
~ what are common mistakes/ pitfalls in setting up a new lab?
~ in hindsight, what do you wish you had done when setting up your lab?

Assume that this is a lab that will make use of a commercial sequencing facility, but will require the capacity to extract DNA, run PCRs (and potentially sequencing reactions), but will not be running its own ABI automated sequencer. I have plenty of information on (and experience with) managing lab budgets. I would particularly like information on the logistics of setting up a brand new lab from scratch.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You might find this book helpful. Also try talking to various reps from the big vendors, Fisher, VWR, Eppendorf, Biorad and Life as they should be able to cut you some deals on setting up a new lab. You can also play them off of each other to get even lower prices.

What equipment you need will depend on:
1. What you're techniques you are using
2. What you have access to in neighboring labs and core facilities etc.
3. How much in start up funds you have.

One thing that I wish all the labs that I've been in had was a common set of lab specific protocols.
posted by euphorb at 7:35 PM on August 27, 2011

Best answer: As a sales rep for a major manufacturer/distributor for the last ten years I can only speak to how I've worked with new labs. First and foremost, put together a rough list of the equipment you'll need for your specific applications and have some way to prioritize your needs. Don't worry about brands or manufacturers unless you have specific preferences. Generally, I recommend you focus on refrigerators/freezers, shakers, incubators, and centrifuges first as those can sometimes have a small lead time. Bear in mind that the more you purchase from one company, the better the discounts we'll be able to get. Let each company come back with an initial quote so you can start to see how far your budget will go and then start to pare down your list from there. Check with your department to see if they have any equipment you can inherit (I've had labs who have been lucky enough to get most of their basic equipment from the labs of retiring PI's, not so good for me, but great for you).

Here's a couple of other quick tips:
-Most companies have "new lab start up" programs that have some pretty great deals so make sure to check them out
-The major distributors should also have general new lab start up checklists that can help you put together your initial list
-Always price check with more than one company even if you think you know exactly what you want, most equipment is pretty comparable so long as it is a respected brand
-Use your sales reps! I can't emphasize that enough, it's what we get paid for and it can save you some time. Don't worry about finding all of the part numbers, if you know you need a dry block incubator that holds 24 microcentrifuge tubes, let us dig through the catalog and find the part numbers.
-Ask for freebies. If you're buying a benchtop centrifuge and a microcentrifuge or two from a given company, ask if they can throw in some pipettes or gel boxes for free (the freebies will depend on what else the company carries).
-I generally give my best prices the first time through as I know the competition for new lab business is always stiff. You may see slightly better prices if you bounce us off one another once, but there are diminishing returns to playing us off one another multiple times (plus we hate it, remember, you're paying for the service we provide too so the lowest price isn't always the best price when you factor in support after the sale). Once we expect to be played off one another by a given customer, we may build a buffer in our prices to allow for some additional room which will only hurt you in the long run.

As for pitfalls, don't buy things you won't need in the near future and if you can borrow your neighbors' stuff because they rarely use it, or if its available in a core facility or shared equipment room, then don't buy your own. You can always get more equipment later and we can probably come pretty close to the same discount (factoring in any list price increases) in the future. Also, ask your sales reps, specifically those from distributors, for their opinions on equipment. we deal with a lot of different companies so we know which companies and competitors have frequent warranty repairs, which ones breakdown right after they are out of warranty, or which ones we've had other customers complain about. We don't want to have those kinds of issues either because if we're busy fixing a bunch of problems, we aren't out finding new sales.

Feel free to PM me if you have any specific questions.
posted by nsomniak21 at 9:09 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is this an academic lab? Are you a new professor?

If so, you're going to want some students -- preferably, I think, undergrads. There will be a lot of boxes to open, and semi-mindless but time-consuming organizational tasks to do, which a smart undergrad would be well up to, and which are not the best use of your time. (I was such a student, and glad to have the opportunity, so don't think I'm Marie Antionette with this.)
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:40 PM on August 27, 2011

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I do not need information on students or finances. I am interested in finding out more about the logistics of setting up a new molecular genetics lab (PCR, sequencing reactions, DNA extractions, maybe some cloning), specifically the practicalities of:

~ Choosing equipment;
~ Deciding on the layout of the lab and the associated workflows (e.g. individual stations vs shared stations)
~ Implementing lab management schemes, universal lab protocols etc.

Please consider anything relating to students or finances as off the table - I'm plenty informed on these matters and would like more information on the logistics of setting up a brand new lab from scratch.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 11:13 PM on August 27, 2011

Best answer: nsomniak makes some great points.

I don't have a lot of advice on the biochem side, but would like to offer some thoughts on the facilities side. Make certain that you've sorted out things like electrical, water and gas supply for the instruments you buy. What power do you have in the lab space? Where to you need plugs? Is single phase ok, or do some of big items (freezers etc) need three phase. I spend as much time deciding where a new piece of equipment will go and what services it will need as I do on the purchase contracting.

Do you have the workspaces laid out in the lab the way you want them? Wet bench, instrument bench, desk space, is ideal. Do you need incubator or fumehood space? How close is that to the wet bench? How far is the run from the reagent and sample storage (fridges) to the work areas? You don't want students dropping stuff because they have to go around corners. Likewise, is there a bench beside the reagent fridge or the incubators so the operator can take something out, set it down and open the door? You don't want people fumbling with latches with bottles or tray in their hands.

Where are you going to store supplies? How much do you need to stage near the workbench?

For PCs, is there a departmental standard you have to meet? What's your data and records backup schema? If you can hand this off to your IT folks, all the better, but you'll still have to deal with instrument backups. Our is about as simple as it gets: instruments write to their local disks. Every instrument pc is logged into the network with a group network shared drive. Once a week synctoy runs (every instrument on a different night) to back up that instrument's data to the network share. IT takes care of the server backups for us. Prior to this, we had one tech spending 10% of her time doing backups every week. I can't tell you how much of a timesaver this has been for us.

Likewise, automate as much as you can. Look into networked fridge monitors. You should not need to have someone checking fridge temperatures every day. There are several systems out there (Oakton, iOmega). They all work about the same, just pick one.

Finally, do you need/want a LIMS? That's a whole 'nother complicated discussion.
posted by bonehead at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2011

If you are literally developing this space from the floor up and the bare walls out, you may want to meet with an experienced architect and if you are completely new to this, your department/uni/corporation may have an advisor or at least an "old pro" who can offer advice. The linked to article cites various challenges the architectural firm overcame in building that lab, from ground slope/window exposure to number of conference rooms. One thing I'd offer is to allow room for growth/change. I've been in labs which were built before the era of Personal Protective Gear and there are no spaces to take on/off gear as you enter/leave. Or that did not adequately plan for flexibility in equipment size/needs, esp for computers/printers or staff increases. Need for freezer space for long term storage of controls/supplies and need for back up power systems are also easily misjudged.
posted by beaning at 9:03 AM on August 28, 2011

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