Labs, lipids, peptides and pores – what happened on day two

If you haven’t seen my post about my first day visiting the labs, it’s probably worth starting there. If you have, welcome to day two!

On my second day I went back to meet Andrew at the School of Chemistry. We chatted while he prepared a lipid mixture to ‘grow’ some GUVs (Giant Unilamellar Vesicles). He prepared two mixtures. One he knew would make it quite tricky to grow the GUVs but would give us the chance to run a new experiment if we got good GUVs, the other was a more reliable but less exciting mix so that we would have something to look at through the confocal microscope later if the first mix failed.

Andrew making calculations

Making GUVs is not done using the same technique as preparing Large vesicles (LUVs), which is what Luke, a Masters student in the lab, was involved in, alongside us in the lab. (The ‘Giant’ and the ‘Large’ are all relative of course – we are talking microns here). He recounted how he had been trying for months to create GUVs of a certain type and over those several months it had only worked well once – on a day when, atypically, he didn’t have the info to replicate the conditions. I compared that to trying to repeat firings to try and find a good programme for my pate de verre sacks – my Imperfect Vessels – which in the end took about 12 firings to get a programme that worked the way I wanted it to. That conversation made me feel a good deal less patient or diligent than I had.

Luke ‘extruding’ his LUVs
One of the teeny tiny syringes used to measure out the right amount of each of the lipids – the central channel that draws up the liquid is barely the width of a wire. I loved them.
The lipid mixture is placed on a glass plate with one conductive side and then paired with another plate separated silicon. Once held with bulldog clips (so useful those things) they are connected up and put into the oven, which is stepped slowly to process temperature. Bit like a kiln.

Having wired up the GUVs and popped them into the oven to form, we went to look at the chemical robot. This is a machine for setting up plates with multiple samples at a time according to whatever is programmed for a specific set of experiments. It was strangely mesmerising – whoever had developed the machine had programmed in a set of elegant flourishes – not obviously functional, but very engaging. As the pipettes dipped towards the plates they each dropped down in turn, creating a lovely wave of pipettes heading into the wells with their samples. Similarly, there was a moment’s dramatic pause before the used pipette heads were all knocked off and the sequence started again. A kind of magic.

Some shaky video of the chemical robot doing its dance

In a quiet moment between experiments etc, we started talking about the Brazilian wasp from which the MP1 peptide is drawn. It’s called Polybia Paulista and it’s massive!

Later in the afternoon we took a look at our GUVs through the confocal microscope. Here are some of the images I snapped off the screen

The images are super-seductive, with the bright coloured labelling (this is showing phase separation – more of that later). But although the temptation is to leap into making bright, spotty, luminescent glass forms, I am not sure that’s where i should ultimately be headed.

In the evening, Paul and I continued the conversations over dinner, and then met up with some of his colleagues from The Superposition, an amazing art/science collective in Leeds. It was a lovely evening and brilliant to chat, but everyone’s anxiety about Coronavirus was already surfacing, and i headed off feeling a bit sombre.

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