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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Enzyme Club

Restriction enzyme There was some discussion on Twitter yesterday about molecular biology reagents and kits, etc. I started to tweet this, then realized it was more of a blog post than a tweet.

"In my day" i.e. when I started my PhD back in 197<cough>, the first few weeks were spent joining the Enzyme Club. This encompassed all the biomedical researchers at the University of Leicester. Each new student would prepare a batch enzyme for recombinant DNA work. In my case, I made Hsu I (an isoschizomer of Hae III but allegedly easier to prepare). Since it was years ago, I can't remember how many litres of the organism I grew up, but I remember very clearly doing the first assay on two litres of crude extract, and figuring out I was holding £40 million pounds worth of enzyme at the then current market prices. The first affinity column cut it down to £15 million, and a quick gel filtration to couple of millions pounds worth - still pretty good for two weeks work, especially when you remember that two million pounds was enough to buy you a house back in the 1970s!

Why did the Enzyme Club exist? Because these reagents were scarce in the 1970s, and rationed both by price and availability. Only a few years before, the only way to get hold of any of these enzymes was to make your own. This type of open science made sense. Why did the Enzyme Club cease to exist? Gradually, it became clear that the batch of enzyme I made wasn't very good. It had a persistent exonuclease activity which meant it was fine for restriction analysis but rubbish for cloning, and it went off very quickly in storage, so that after three months there wasn't much activity left. And although I've always been a rubbish protein chemist, that was a pretty common experience. Gradually, the companies dropped their prices and improved both the quality and availability of commercial enzymes. The day came when the Enzyme Club didn't make sense any more, and it quietly died. It's probably still moldering in the back of a coldroom over in the MSB.

So boys and girls, this is a story of the economics of open science, which made sense in response to scarce resources. When the availability of enzymes was limiting, this open approach made sense. When time became limiting, we all retreated back into our laboratories and got on with whatever we needed to do to get a PhD. The moral of this story is that open science pops up it's head when times are hard and resources are scarce, but retreats quickly as the balance changes.

So what are you going to do about it?