The politics of western blotting

I’m just a little bit sorry — this blog is only relevant to all of you fellow lab rats who understand what a western blot is. Everyone else — you might get lost on this, but count your blessings. At least you don’t have to do westerns.

Sure, sure. Tell me about it. You’ve got the best western blotting protocol out there. Yours has been distilled and refined, sharpened and shaved just enough. Finally, you’ve corralled all of those jaggedy-toothed Jack-o-lantern bands that used to eerily float around the film like it was a bit too windy when the gel was loaded. Even better, your protein loading standards are coming out looking more like a freshly painted passing zone on the highway. Congratulations. But I’m sorry to say that no one (not even you!) has yet created the ultimate western blot.

It’s interesting that a method so common in the biological sciences has no legitimate consensus on how to perform it. Should I use TBST or PBST? Can I re-use my primaries or do I need fresh solutions every time? Will I get less background if I store in milk or BSA? Oh, the controversy! Somehow, in a field that is packed with such analytical people, there is no guaranteed answer to these questions. Only trial and error will definitively give you the answers you need for your specific blot. And for all of you over there telling me that scientists can’t ever agree anyways… I disagree! In fact, the scientific community is actually capable of reaching consensuses; even on very controversial issues… (Is it getting warm in here, or is that just the polar ice cap melting?)

Unfortunately, that leaves us (scientists — yes, but really everybody) with extra work to do in order to establish answers to some questions. No one can truthfully write down the answer, or the protocol that will apply to everyone’s situation — if they tell you that they can, don’t buy it. If you let them, they’ll probably try to sell you a beach house in Albuquerque. We have got to do our own work for the answer; think about it, research it, try a few iterations and find something that you see as acceptable. Yes, I know that is not as easy as just accepting that thing you heard someone say and you agreed with it. Remember, there is no single perfect western blot. Just ask Howard Muskowitz (Google him! And learn about how there is no perfect pickle and why some people like pasta sauce with visible solids). Very often, there are many separately perfect western blots. And there are many substantially satisfactory answers to many different tricky questions. Which leads us to the lessons that western blotting can teach us about politics…

The next presidential election is barely less than a year away, and the political mud is already being slung so far and wide I half expect even our white Christmas snow to be tainted with dirt from some candidate’s smear campaign. There are plenty of controversial social, political, and economic issues being discussed, and every side wants to refine each issue so the solution to Important Problem X appears clean, obvious, and very much in line with the ideologies of their biggest sponsors. Whomever you choose to support, or whichever stance you take on your most important question du jour, treat it more like western blotting. Do your own thinking and get your hands dirty with some of your own research — it may not lead to a perfect solution, but at least you know you can trust it to guide your thought process. The simplest, cleanest answers are often too good to be true, so if you’ve got an opinion, make sure it’s yours. The best blots, the ones that will really shut up the skeptics and other haters, took loads of effort to finally turn out right. Just like westerns, the best opinions, no matter how controversial, will be respected when others can tell you did your own work.

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