Magic, or science?

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Before yesterday, isolating RNA (schematic above) from cells seemed like magic.


Science isn’t magic. It’s, well, science. Hard work. Long hours in a lab. Sometimes tedious procedures done over and over. Often times, frustration. But hopefully, some meaningful results.

From the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge,” science is the “systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories” (from

OK, that’s pretty obvious. But when you don’t know how science works, it might seem a little like magic. Or at least, it has sometimes seemed that way to me.

But yesterday, Olga showed me how to do something that I never imagined I’d see, or have the chance to do (she wants me to try it for myself soon): isolating RNA from cells.

RNA stands for “ribonucleic acid.” RNA is similar to DNA (I won’t go into the structural differences; it gets pretty technical). RNA is very important for protein synthesis (making proteins in the cells), as well as for regulating which genes are expressed in a cell.

RNA is tiny, tiny, tiny, as you can imagine. Our mission was to separate these tiny nucleotides from the rest of the bits of a group of cells that we collected.

Before yesterday, this procedure seemed like magic to me – I had no idea how it was done, and I imagined it happening in a hugely high-tech environment with all kinds of machines and things. Lots of complicated stuff, way beyond my understanding and capability. But Olga and I (well, I watched) did it rather simply – with some plastic tubes, bottles of buffer solution, pipettes, a syringe and needle, and a few spins in the centrifuge.

Of course, understanding the mechanisms for how the RNA was being separated from the cell, and why we were doing it, is quite advanced. But the procedure itself was rather simple, in terms of technology. No magic here. Science: patience, time, and hard work.

The kit we used was called “RNeasy,” and was designed to make the process just that – easy. First you pipette your sample into a special tube, which contains a silica membrane that will eventually trap the RNA. Then you lyse (break down) the cells using a special solution. Then you homogenize (blend) the particles using a needle and syringe, sucking them up and squirting them out several times. Then you add ethanol to them to help them bind to the silica membrane. Then you use buffer solutions to wash away the contaminants, centrifuging in between the washes. The RNA is then eluted (extracted) using water. (At least, I think that was the order of things …)

Olga glided through the process with the grace of a professional ballet dancer. Of course, just remembering all the steps, properly pipetting (without contaminating anything), using the centrifuge correctly, and so on – much less doing it all quickly – isn’t easy for a beginner, such as myself. But I am slowly grasping these techniques, and building up speed.

Most importantly, I am learning the science behind science. And that is a lesson I will not forget.