Freezer Burn

Written by: Richard Lenski

Primary Source: Telliamed Revisited, 10/7/2019

One of the more challenging aspects of running a microbiology lab, in my opinion, is freezer management.  There’s a lot to keep track of, both in terms of quantity and quality.  My lab team and I take great pride in the quality control of our work that has allowed us, for example, to keep the LTEE running for over 30 years and 70,000 generations without contamination.  Or rather, as I’ve posted before, we’ve had occasional accidents including cross-contamination of the replicate lines, but we’ve caught those mistakes and, using frozen samples, restarted as needed to keep things going smoothly and cleanly.

With my lab group now running for ~34 years (I started at UCI in 1985), and with so many hard-working students and postdocs, we’ve filled up lots of –80C freezers.  And that’s despite shipping many strains to scientific collaborators and former lab members who’ve continued to work on the various projects—the LTEE is only one (albeit the longest) of the many projects we’ve done in my lab.  Adding to the storage challenge, we’ve got duplicates of most samples in case we have a problem with the primary sample (say, someone drops a vial on the floor).  Also, to avoid compromising our primary or backup samples, I ask that everyone who plans to use any sample (usually a set of many samples) more than once make his or her own working copies of the samples.

And freezers sometimes fail, despite our best efforts to maintain them in tip-top shape.  So over the years, I’ve always tried to keep a freezer’s worth of spare capacity across our multiple freezers, so when one fails, everything can be moved into a functioning freezer.

On Sunday, one of our workhorse freezers failed. Most of our freezers have alarms that send out an email alert to members of the lab that something is amiss.  This one did not (oops!), but fortunately undergraduate Jessica Baxter (working hard even on the weekend), noticed that it had “warmed up” to –40C or so.  I was off visiting grandkids, but Jessica was able to reach Devin Lake, who manages the lab’s operations extremely well, even as he does double-duty as a grad student.  Devin and Jessica were able to find enough spare capacity to get everything into one of the surviving freezers, so nothing was lost.

But that meant we had no more spare capacity.  We can buy a new freezer, although my experience (and hearing about many other failures) is that they don’t make them like they used to.  And what if another freezer were to fail before we got a new one?

I knew we had many freezer racks full of now-unimportant samples—working copies made by people who’ve left the lab, as well as samples from abandoned experiments and various long-ago projects that won’t be revisited.  So I asked Devin to look through the freezers for the identifiers on various racks (besides the LTEE and any associated with current lab members) that would give me ideas of what we could discard to free up some space that we will need for ongoing projects … as well as the possibility of another freezer failure.  (But please not that!  I’m not trying to tempt fate—I just want to be prepared.)  It turns out there were lots of possibilities, so Devin and I spent a couple of hours checking boxes and then removing about 20 freezer racks, most holding 6 to 10 boxes, and most of those with dozens of small vials, each holding many millions or even billions of bacterial cells.  Seeing the names of former lab members on the boxes, and the numbers on all those vials, was a humbling reminder of all the hard work that so many have done over the years.  Devin carted three loads of discards down to one of our workrooms, where hardworking tech John Baltusis emptied each box and prepared the vials for the sterilization (autoclaving at high temperature) that’s required before they can be discarded.

Thanks to the hard work of Jessica, Devin, and John, the lab avoided any setback. In fact, our freezer collection is now a little more manageable than it was before.

Devin Lake and John Baltusis discard samples from a cart.

Devin Lake, in front, with one of three cartloads of samples to discard, while John Baltusis removes the samples from one box before autoclaving.

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Richard Lenski
Dr. Lenski is an evolutionary biologist. He writes about evolutionary science – past, present, and future – and some of the goings-on in the life of a scientist.
Richard Lenski

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