Sydney Brenner – Lab cocktails (26/236)

To hear more of Sydney Brenner’s stories, go to the playlist:

Biologist Sydney Brenner was born in South Africa in 1927. A pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology, he discovered messenger RNA. He is one of three co-recipients of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. [Listener: Lewis Wolpert]

TRANSCRIPT: The next year, having deviated to do one year, the question is: do you go back to medicine? Most of my colleagues did, but I decided I was more interested in this, and so I would stay on and do an Honours degree. And so that’s exactly what I did. Now of course my bursary was suspended, but I got a job in the department as a technician. That is, I was paid in lieu of fees, and I also was paid a small salary, and what I essentially did was make a whole set of teaching slides of the human body – histology, helping a technician. So I learnt how to embed human tissue, and, for that matter, animal tissue, but any tissue. I learnt how to section these. I learnt how to stain them and mount them, and so I became a… essentially histology technician and I used to go and work there in the department doing all of this.

It is there also that I discovered the wonders of Puccini’s fluid. Now, Puccini’s fluid is nothing to do with the opera. Puccini’s fluid was a preservative that was consisted of 70%… sorry, one part of 95% alcohol and one part of glycerine, and I had made this up and I was, I think, preserving some tissue in it or clearing it or something… I decided to have a taste of this stuff. And of course glycerine is exactly what you need to cut the taste, the bite of the alcohol and Puccini’s fluid, which after having a taste, I… this was a Saturday afternoon – I woke up on the floor of the laboratory Sunday morning, still holding this 100cc measuring cylinder – I’d taken much more than a taste of it. But it actually is the best way to make lab cocktails. And a very good formula is absolute ethanol, and one should not use 100% actually because that has been cleaned by cold distillation with benzene, so it’s pretty poisonous. 95% is good enough and one part of that, one part of glycerol and one part of orange juice or something like this, makes something that is so smooth, so tasteless and so effective that it’s the best thing you can do, and so Puccini’s fluid I think has a lot to recommend it. Actually, this discovery of the cutting edge of glycols was, as you know, used fairly recently when people were adding ethylene glycol to wine to give it that sort of mature taste. Except ethylene glycol is poisonous – it’s… it’s what you put in your radiators. You know, there was a scandal some time ago that they were poisoning the wine. But glycerine I can tell you is a natural compound and is perfectly safe. However… but that’s a little sideline, and… but I learnt to do all of this and there I really started to do some… I really started on doing research.