Picking Picking Picking…

The bane of my existence.

I mentioned in my introductory post that I am currently working 13-hour days. This is because I am scrambling to finish the last experiments we need in order to publish our paper, and I need to have them done yesterday.

I work with C. elegans, a little nematode which is barely visible with the naked eye. It is convenient, especially for experiments involving aging, because you can keep large numbers quite cheaply, they have a rapid life cycle and normally live for around 20-25 days. Great right?


Given the fact that they don’t live very long, lifespan experiments are commonplace in worm labs, meaning you check to see how long it takes for the worms to die. However, these worms are also hermaphrodites, so they lay eggs even if there are no males around. As I said they have a very rapid life cycle, around 4 days long, which means that after a few days you might confuse your original population of worms with the progeny that they produced in the meantime, and that wont do if you want to know how long it takes for your worms to die. The solution? You have to transfer your adults onto new plates, by hand, every couple of days, to separate them from the larvae. This is commonly known as picking, and everyone hates doing it.

So how do you do this, exactly? First, you need a pick, which looks something like this


A pick is a small, flattened platinum wire stuck into the end of a glass pipette. You then take your plate to the microscope, and start picking up the worms with it.

Video at http://web.science.uu.nl/developmentalbiology/gallery.html

Video at http://web.science.uu.nl/developmentalbiology/gallery.html

The worms crawl along on agar plates, which is the consistency of a very stiff jelly. You need to pick the worms off of these plates and on to new ones,

  1.  Without piercing the agar when you pick them up
  2. Without piercing the agar when you put them down
  3. Without bringing the larvae along in the process (or at least, not letting any of the larvae you accidentally transferred with your worms stay on the plate)

This process is taking up a good chunk of my day. I have made a quick calculation, and I am currently transferring around 80 small plates, each with around 50 worms, so that’s… that’s…

4000 worms. Every other day. And no, they don’t wait to lay their eggs on the weekends. And to think there were many more than that just a couple of weeks ago. No wonder I’m going cross-eyed.

Welcome to the glamor of working in science! I suppose it should be a consolation that, in spite of this, I still love my job.


  1. says

    I totally feel your pain. My fisheries biologist husband did his Phd on phytoplankton, and for one experiment we worked on together we tested for toxins EVERY TWO HOURS for four days. Each test took an hour. I think we would have murdered each other or at least got a divorce if we weren’t so exhausted sleeping in alternate four hour shifts for days. We were literally sleeping on a floor in a closet off the lab. Science research can be so fun! and exhausting, and boring at the time. Something many people don’t seem to understand scientists work darn hard to get new data.

  2. anat says

    Oh yes, the routine work without which laboratory science can’t exist. My PhD work involved a long phase of growing mouse Embryonic Stem cells. They need to be taken care of (at least a medium change, but often enough also a splitting of the culture) every 24 hours or there’s a chance they start differentiating. Weekends are the days you only have to hop into the lab for a short while.

    But I understand fly geneticists have it the worst – they need to collect virgin adults upon hatching to keep males separate from females. Tedious work that takes up way too much time.

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