by Jim Battersby, UK
As an amateur microscopist interested in producing my own botanical slides and looking for some updated information, I recently bought Steven E. Ruzin’s book ‘Plant Microtechnique & Microscopy’ (ISBN 0-19-508956-1).
Not a cheap book at around £45, but clearly written with many updated techniques, and a much needed modern addition to the literature. However I did have some confusion over some of the chemical names.
As an example ‘Paraffin Oil’ is specified in his Tert Butyl Alcohol dehydrating technique (Johansen 1940). Steven does give a footnote stating that this is also known as ‘mineral oil’. The problem with this is that the ‘Paraffin Oil’ listed in some UK catalogues is Kerosene – which is not mineral oil. In the UK, we know mineral oil as ‘liquid paraffin’ sold for medical and cosmetic use. Next we have TBA or Tert Butyl Alcohol, try looking that up in most modern chemical catalogues – the chances are you’ll never find it unless you look up 2-Methylpropan-2-ol. Same with Iso propyl alcohol (IPA), it’s under Propan-2-ol. Confused? I was, so goodness only knows how the amateur who’s trying to start from scratch will go on, that is assuming they haven’t spent the last 30 years in a laboratory.
Steven also discusses the use of microwave ovens in tissue preparation and staining; however, he’s not referring to our standard domestic model – far from it. As Steven himself tells me, the only current reliable model suitable for microscopy costs over £7,000 (no, I haven’t made a mistake). In fairness, Steven’s book is not aimed at the home amateur, but it all goes to show how far removed we poor hobbyists are from the cutting edge!
We all know about the problems of finding good second-hand equipment like microtomes or incubators, but at least they do turn up occasionally. And now we know the correct names of the chemicals we need so we can find them in the trade catalogues, but where do we buy them from? Since the loss of NBS, a lot of basic chemicals such as Xylene are simply not available unless you’re in business. Chemical suppliers will not supply private individuals. Regulations – and now the threat of litigation if anything goes wrong - mean that suppliers simply daren’t sell anything that may be harmful. You can’t even buy self-indicating silica gel, because the cobalt chloride (sorry, cobalt (II) chloride) – once included in every child’s chemistry set - is now considered to be hazardous!
Most people do not realise that anyone can apply to customs and excise for a licence to buy IMS (Industrial methylated spirit) for their hobby, but unless you have a friendly pharmacy, where do you get it?
There is always the odd member (like myself) who will sell small quantities to fellow members, but that isn’t the answer. Perhaps, microscope societies should consider having annual training sessions on Health and Safety where members could attend and gain a certificate, which would allow them to purchase an agreed range of chemicals from willing suppliers. I’m not sure how this would stand up legally, so perhaps societies should consider these problems and seek legal advice, or even possibly lobby their MP’s for legislation.
If something isn’t done soon, the art of amateur practical microscopy will become as obsolete as DOS 3.
All comments to the author Jim Battersby are welcomed.
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