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  Section: Biotechnology Methods » Tools and Techniques in Biological Studies
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The advent of the personal computer has been one of the most significant factors impacting laboratory work in the past decades.

It doesn’t make any difference which hardware system you use. The important point is that the computer is used as a tool to enhance learning in the laboratory.

Commercial Software
There are a number of types of programs available and useful to the cell biology laboratory.

  • Spreadsheets
  • Graphing programs
  • Equation solvers
  • Database programs
  • Word processors
  • Outline programs
  • Paint/draw programs
  • Computer-assisted instruction (CAI)

Without question, the single most useful program available for data collection and analysis is the spreadsheet program. There are several available, each with its own merits. The leaders in the PC-dominated field are Lotus 1–2–3 or Excel. Integrated packages nearly always contain powerful spreadsheets.

A spreadsheet program is an electronic balance sheet divided into rows and columns. Pioneered by Visicalc, these programs may have had as much impact on computer use as the actual design of the hardware. Any data that can be tabulated in columns and rows can be added to this type of program. Functions are readily available for totals (sums), averages, means, maximum and minimum values, and full trignometric functions. The programs listed above also include capabilities of sorting data, searching through the data, and for automatic graphing of the data. Each allows the construction of blank masks that contain the instructions for coding input and output while allowing students ease of data entry.

Spreadsheet programs have become so powerful in their latest versions that they can be used as word processors and for database manipulations. If you were to purchase only one software package for the cell biology laboratory, it should be a spreadsheet.

Graphing Programs
Separate programs for graphing data are useful in that they contain more options than those found within spreadsheets, and allow for more complex graphs. The better programs will also provide regressional analyses, either linear or polynomial. Nearly all allow for data input from a spreadsheet or database, in addition to direct entry.

Among the best are Sigma Plot, Energraphics, Harvard Graphics, and Cricket Graph. Most of these programs are designed for business graphics, but can be used in the cell laboratory.

Database Programs
These programs are powerful for the long-term storage and manipulation of data. They are more useful for research storage of data than for direct use in the undergraduate laboratory. Their strength lies in the ability to do with words what spreadsheets can do with numbers.

Database programs are excellent means of filing references, sources, equipment lists, chemical inventory, etc. They can also be used effectively for filing of nucleic acid sequences, but the database must be created before it can be used. Whether or not to use a database for this purpose depends on the availability of the data in an appropriate form for use within your program. If a database is used, however, a hard drive becomes almost mandatory.

Word Processors
There are as many word processors available as there are pebbles on the shore. For many computer users, this function is synonymous with computers. For the purposes of the cell biology laboratory, any one is sufficient. The programs are useful for writing lab reports, and marginally useful as alternatives to databases for things like searching for nucleic acid codes.

Outline Programs
If you are heavily into writing reports and/or papers, you may want to tie together a good outlining program with a word processor and top it off with RightWriter.

Paint/Draw Programs
A useful adjunct to various graphing programs are paint or draw programs. Paint programs plot pixels on a graphic screen and allow simple drawing routines. Examples of these are PC-Paintbrush, PC-Paint, and PaintShow.

Single-Purpose Programs
These programs are sometimes available through commercial channels, but more often are written for specific purposes. It would be impossible to list all of the areas where these could be used in a cell biology laboratory, but a few should be mentioned.
  • Resolution calculations for light and EM microscopy
  • Cell morphometry — area, volume, numbers
  • Centrifugation, conversion among rotors
  • Centrifugation, sedimentation coefficients, molecular weights
  • Beer-Lambert law
  • Calculation of molecular weights from electrophoresis gels
  • Ion flux across membranes
  • Manometric calculations
  • H+ flux and chemiosmosis
  • Gene mapping, recombination
  • Growth curves
  • Simulation of cAMP effects on dictyostelium
  • Radiation dose response.

Essentially, anything which requires repetitive calculations or data sorting is material for this section.

Two programs are worth mentioning here. The first (CELLM) allows us to play the role of a cell membrane. The second (BEER) allows rapid calculations of extinction coefficients using the Beer-Lambert law. Other programs include the Quick Basic program for interconversion of centrifuge rotors and calculations of viscosity, sedimentation coefficients, and clearing constants, which would require 12–15 pages if typed out. Programs can become very complex over time.


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