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19 December 2015

Seaweed, helium and human blood – Christmas gifts for the scientist in your life

Some of the materials needed for scientific research are becoming scarce.

By Michael Brooks

If you’re wondering what to get the scientist in your life for Christmas, perhaps your first option could be seaweed. Microbiologists are facing a debilitating shortage of a seaweed-derived gel that is used to grow cells for laboratory experiments.

Known as agar, the gel has a set of peculiar properties that has made it an important ingredient in a range of research projects. Concerns over the rate of its harvest are starting to influence supply, however.

Export is now so tightly controlled that some laboratories are running low on stock. The journal Nature reports that many labs may soon begin to restrict their experimental work. As a result, projects as diverse as hunting for antibiotics and cancer cures and identification of pathogens in the natural environment may fall victim to the great seaweed crisis of 2015. Unless, that is, someone can manage to negotiate terms with the North Korean government: apparently, there is plenty of unexploited, agar-rich seaweed off its coast.

Maybe your scientist isn’t into cell growth – perhaps he or she would prefer a bottle or two of helium? This element is used in a variety of scientific applications. One is to cool medical equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to within a few degrees of absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible. Another is to provide an “inert” atmosphere when building electronics components.

There are two stable variants of the gas – helium-3 and helium-4 – and both suffer from a severely restricted supply chain. Helium-4 supplies are dwindling and there is concern that prices could go stratospheric in response. Helium-3 is manufactured from radioactive materials, generally restricting production severely. But there is a lot of it on the moon: its abundance there and its possible use as fuel for nuclear fusion reactors are among the reasons that Barack Obama recently signed a bill granting US companies the right to mine on the moon. Yet this is hardly a short-term solution.

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Another scientific shortage can be found in the area of stem-cell research for medical applications. Growing human stem cells into tissue requires a precise set of nutrients and sourcing them is a difficult and disconcerting process. The current growth medium of choice is foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from the foetuses carried by cows sent for slaughter while pregnant. As well as being extraordinarily expensive, it carries all kinds of ethical baggage. No one is clear about how much animal suffering the extraction causes but many researchers are understandably squeamish about their complicity in the process.

The good news is that human platelet lysate seems to offer an alternative. To make it, first freeze some human blood. Then thaw it, then freeze it again – and repeat. The process causes platelets in the blood to burst their cell membranes and release growth factors and other molecules essential to cell growth.

In a paper to be published in the journal Biomaterials in January, a group of researchers claims that the product of this process may have all the properties required to make it the gold standard for growing human cells in the lab. Some festive cheer for stem-cell researchers, then – and even better news for cows.

This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special