Must resist urge to touch liquid nitrogen!

Have you ever been in the situation where you learn about a subject and you maybe find it a bit hard to understand or you don’t enjoy it, but then you finish studying it and you think “ah that’s ok, I’m sure I’ll never need to use this information again”!! And so you bury/forget all said information and carry on with life. Until you suddenly find yourself sat in a discussion thinking “mmm, wish I’d paid a bit more attention back then”. Well my current job does have those moments, I will admit.

Genetics. The building blocks of life. Extremely vital to the whole of our existence. And without which I wouldn’t be sat here writing this blog. Super smart stuff using super cool technology. And I appreciate all of this but I have to hold my hands up and say……I just don’t get it. I’ve tried, I really have but very quickly I get lost in words such as SNPs and CRISPR, primers and plasticity. Is it up-regulated or over-expressed? And apparently there’s a google for genes called Blast!!

To come clean, there was a genetics module in my A Level Biology course and I didn’t do very well. In fact, I believe I um *cough* re-took that exam to try and improve my grade, which I did manage to do, a bit. But once I’d finished my A Levels I pushed all that information out to make room for all the fun exciting conservation I was learning about instead (I ensured genetics did not feature in my degree course). And I lasted nearly 10 years of safety, thinking that I didn’t need to know about genetics. Until I started this job.

Now I’m actually being a bit harsh on myself because it’s not really part of my role. I’m the practical, get your hands dirty black-grass technician and it’s the reason why we have Lieselot in our team who is the lab coat wearing, pipette wielding, molecular black-grass technician. But an element of our black-grass project is looking at the genetics of the species to try and understand what causes resistance so it is something I need to be aware of. I have gained a basic understanding by asking stupid questions in lab meetings, doing my best to follow what is being said and through an idiots guide session from our PhD student Claudia and our population geneticist Post-Doc Andrea.

And so this is how I found myself out on the sandbeds the other day, collecting batches of eppendorf tubes from my colleagues, filled with small sections of leaves cut from all of our black-grass plants and putting them into polystyrene boxes filled with liquid nitrogen. I was in charge of ‘flash-freezing’ these samples which is cool because they make a fizzing, crackling sound as the tubes touch the liquid. And I also know that, as tempting as it may look, it’s a bad idea to put your fingers in there too. We were collecting these samples to test the DNA. I think. They are in the freezer for now and I have a suspicion that we are going to be asked to do something with them at a later date, grinding perhaps, but I’m going to keep quiet and cross that bridge when it comes. And I suppose it’s good to be taken out of your comfort zone sometimes and learn new techniques.

Of course, we all have topics that we know more about or understand better than others but what makes the difference is having people in your team who are willing to patiently answer your stupid questions. And luckily I do.


Excitingly, I have also had a guest article on the Annals of Botany blog as part of their Plant Facts Week feature. I have really enjoyed the whole experience and will hopefully write for them again in the future. The article is a nice overview of Black-grass, our project and there’s even a better explanation of genetics for you including a snazzy YouTube video. You can read this blog post on the following link:



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