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University of Wisconsin–Madison


DNA Tube Story

The Story of the Development of the DNA Tube

By Tom Zinnen

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I first saw DNA in tubes used as souvenirs when I worked at Agrigenetics on the east side of Madison during 1985-86. As part of the Open House at Agrigenetics in the summer of 1985, Mike Murray, leader of the corn genetics group, had prepared several dozen plastic test tubes with screw top lids and containing alcohol with corn DNA suspended in it.

The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, also used tubes of DNA in alcohol as souvenirs. In the mid 1990′s, my friend Mike Grasmick asked me if I would make some DNA tubes as souvenirs for a group of visitors to the Frito-Lay Research Lab in Rhinelander. I thought the alcohol-filled tubes had several drawbacks: the alcohol could leak, the DNA couldn’t be easily handled, and the tubes were too big to put in a pocket. So I decided to use dry DNA placed in a small, clear plastic tube (a standard 1.5 ml Eppendorf-type microcentrifuge tube).

The dry DNA is a standard product extracted from salmon testis and purchased from the Sigma Product Information.  The DNA is used routinely in labs as a non-specific “blocking” agent in Southern blots. The DNA comes in a white plastic bottle and looks like cotton fibers.

The DNA tube needed a label, and the first approach was to wrap a label around the tube; but this blocked the view of the DNA. I tried a label on a string, which did not obstruct the view of the DNA, but could get tangled when several tubes were piled together.

Next I tried a “pennant” approach by attaching the label abutting the tube, rather than around the tube, with cellophane tape that wrapped around the tube and laminated the label. Because the cellophane is clear, it didn’t block the view of the DNA in the tube, and the pennant label doubled the size of the label surface so we could double the space for our messages. The microcentrifuge tubes were clear the conical shape distorted the view of the DNA, so we soon switched to a clear and colorless cylndrical tube and chose to pay extra for the bright red screw-top lids. This gave us a white label with black print and a red lid, a colorful combination.

Tamara Towns in my lab developed a printable form containing many copies of the same label. I began discussions with a representative of a label-printing company and Cheryl Redman worked with a rep to produce the custom-made labels with clear adhesive wings.

The parable of the DNA tube developed out of the unexpected response I often received when I handed a tube to adults on campus: “Wow, cool. But what is this really? Cotton?”

The tubes are hand-made, and keeping a ready supply on hand was a challenge until Cheryl Redman contacted a local agency that provides job training for people with disabilities. Paul Pierick has been making the DNA tubes for us since about 1998.