#LabHacks: How to soften a heart of "stone"

Many researchers at the MDC are investigating proteins or RNA, but these molecules are mostly tightly entrapped in tissue. This is how to get at them  ...

The micro-reaction vessel that Meghna Thakkar is holding contains a valuable asset. It is animal tissue, e.g. from a heart and cooled to minus 80 degrees Celsius. From this, the scientist produces powder by finely grinding the cold, stone-hard tissue samples with a mortar and pestle. “To obtain proteins or RNA from the samples, the tissue structures of the samples have to be broken open,” explains Thakkar. This handy kitchen utensil – which is normally used to grind spices such as pepper or coriander in order to release their essential oils and flavors – is perfect for doing just that.

Nothing goes to waste

Delicious cuisine is not what Meghna Thakkar has in mind when she takes up her mortar and pestle. She has to work quickly, making sure that the temperature of the tissue samples does not rise. To do this, she uses liquid nitrogen, which she ladles from a sort of oversized thermos bottle into the mortar, covering the tissue sample inside. This looks a bit like magic: steam rises as Thakkar focuses on grinding the sample with her mortar and pestle. When the powder is ready, the scientist carefully scrapes all the remains of the sample from the pestle. Nothing should be wasted.

Thakkar puts the pulverized tissue back into the micro-reaction vessel and stores it away in the freezer. Now, at any time, she and her team from Michael Gotthardt’s research group can extract proteins or RNA from this special powder and search for the causes of disease in sick and healthy tissue.

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