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Summer Research Mistakes

August 9, 2012

The recent Mars landing is an impressive case of research requiring absolutely flawless performance–any one mistake in the parachute, or bug in the computer, could have doomed the entire 2.5-billion dollar program. No Twitter marriage proposals for the NASA “mohawk guy.”

But sometimes exciting findings result from the opposite–from mistakes due to carelessness, laziness, or equipment breakdown. In our lab, for instance, this summer the autoclave broke down, so we had to filter our media instead. And suddenly all the E. coli was more acid-resistant than before.

A famous example of summer lapse in research was Louis Pasteur’s discovery of how to make attenuated vaccines. In the spring of 1879, Pasteur was studying “fowl cholera,” a disease that killed a lot of chickens. He had isolated and cultured the bacteria responsible (Pasteurella multocida, obviously named for him), but he left his work during the summer for a long vacation. He told his assistant to inoculate some chickens–but the assistant went off on vacation himself, as sensible French people always do. Just try finding a French scientist at the bench in August.

When Pasteur and his assistant returned to work, the aged bacteria failed to cause disease in his chickens. Pasteur then obtained fresh bacteria from an outbreak of disease elsewhere. But he frugally used the same old chickens. The fresh bacteria failed to make the chickens sick (those that had been exposed to the aged bacteria).

Here is where Pasteur had the important insight–to inoculate new chickens. The new chickens, exposed only to the fresh bacteria, contracted the disease. Grasping the clue from his mistake, Pasteur had the insight to recognize that an attenuated (or “weakened”) strain of microbe, altered somehow to eliminate its potency to cause disease, could still confer immunity to the virulent disease-causing form. As the saying goes, “the rest is history,” rabies vaccine, polio vaccine etc.

So what are your favorite research mistakes?

  1. John permalink
    August 9, 2012 10:52 pm

    A researcher at a mental hospital in I believe Australia was doing random tests to try and find a medication that helped his manic patients. He worked with guinea pigs and found that Lithium salts made the animals much more placid. So he tried it on one of his worst patients, who had been in a permanent manic state for years, and the patient reverted to normal almost instantly. He published it in an obscure Australian journal and it wasn’t noticed for years. Finally some European researchers noticed, and the rest is history. (For several years, it wasn’t available in the US, because lithium carbonate cost about ten dollars a ton and couldn’t be patented, and so all the drug companies refused to do the testing and paperwork to get FDA approval.)

    Here’s the kicker. Further research determined that his original data was totally incorrect. Lithium does not make guinea pigs more placid; it only makes them sick to their stomach.

    • August 10, 2012 1:35 pm

      That’s a good one! I always wondered where lithium came from.

  2. heteromeles permalink
    August 11, 2012 8:07 pm

    I had a big experiment based on a mistake in the greenhouse: I misinterpreted the effects of a light gradient across the greenhouse as based instead on a mycorrhizal gradient that happened to lie the same way (different pots with different treatments were laid along the light gradient). When I started moving thousands of experimental pots every other week to get rid of the light effect, the mycorrhizal effect disappeared as well.

    It turns out that the system I was trying to imitate in the greenhouse actually didn’t have the mycorrhizal effect, so my greenhouse results were accurate. Since it was the first time that mycorrhizal effect hadn’t been found in the field, the experiment turned out to be publishable, negative results and all.

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