Biosafety For the Mad Scientist

Biosafety is just as important for the Mad Scientist as it is for the rest of us scientists who are varying degrees of peeved, ticked, and not-quite-on-kilter. Without good lab practices, the Mad one might wind up cross contaminating his experiment and yield fluffy bunnies wielding switchblades instead of his intended Rabid Cape Buffalo of Doom! Or he might catch his own engineered plague and instead of half the world dying it’s only him, alone, futile, forgotten, slowly mummifying on the lab floor.

There are four biosafety levels, in regular labs. I think as a writer you might safely add a MS5 to the end of the list, but we will begin with the categories you’d find in any old lab here in the land of liberty and biohackers. Along the way I’ll discuss things like waste disposal, the problems of acquiring source material, and, well, being Mad isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.

Biosafety level 1, or BSL1, is a very simple lab. Essentially all that is required is a sink, screened windows, and a door that closes. In this lab, work is not done with any microorganisms that can infect a normal healthy human being. It’s easy to forget that there are a lot of microbes which are harmless, and many that are beneficial, when the Mad ones in our stories are so intent on using bacteria, viruses, fungi, or even yeast to wreak havoc on the world around them. In a BSL1 lab, there’s no need for special waste handling, as there’s no concern for possible LAI (Lab Associated Infection) if the colonies being studied manage to wander past the boundaries of the lab. Also, the Mad Scientist would only have to wear street clothes in this lab. No lab coat, not even gloves! And you know how much he cares about appearance.

BSL2 labs are much more common in real life. They work with a wide range of organisms, some of which are quite virulent, which can make your Mad Scientist happy – virulence is not a measure of how sick it will make you, but how likely it is to spread. Staphylococcus aureus is quite virulent, and can be pathogenic, causing skin infections or upper respiratory infections, but it is also normal microbiota in most humans and carries on calmly not affecting it’s host in the least most of the time. The Mad Scientist would likely not be interested in messing about with Staph. a.

BSL2 labs require stringent cleaning procedures, as much to maintain an aseptic working space as to prevent LAI, as any handling of pathogenic organisms should be carried out in a Biosafety Cabinet (BSC) using gloves, sterile utensils, flame for sterilization, and a constant negative airflow that is filtered through a HEPA filter before being returned to room air. For simple handling of lab tasks in an aeseptic manner, which doesn’t require protection of the lab minion (what, you think the Mad Scientist does his own technical work?), a LAF hood may be used, which is a laminar air flow that creates a smooth, positive air flow from the back of the hood to the front and prevents aerosolized microbes from contaminating the work.

BSL2 labs also require careful waste handling procedures, something you will see again in BSL3 and 4 labs. You can’t just throw possibly infectious material in the trash, nor can you flush it down the sewer. Unless your Mad Scientist is trying to end up with this?

Waste should be autoclaved, which involves bringing it up to a certain temperature (usually 121 C) and pressure for a set amount of time (settings will vary depending on what is being autoclaved for what reason. Autoclaving is also used to sterilize tools and media) before slowly releasing the pressure of the steam being used to do this task. Autoclaves are finicky, a pain in any Mad Scientist’s tuchis, and can be a plot point in a story where nothing goes right!

BSL3 may be more your Mad Scientist’s speed. Working in this level, or level 4, requires a lot more protective gear. Unlike BSL2, which can usually be done in a lab coat over regular clothes, closed-toe shoes, and simple nitrile gloves, anyone going into a level three lab needs a full tyvek suit, rubber boots, and possibly a hood with face shield. Work in this lab is done by reaching through holes in the sides of special cabinets, usually into heavy-duty glove-like arms that are permanently mounted, and keeping several layers between the human and their workspace. Everything going in or out of this lab must be decontaminated first.

BSL4 has similar working conditions, with the addition of requiring very special air handling for the entire facility, often requiring a dedicated building for this level of lab. There are only a few in the entire world that can work at this level, handling viruses like Ebola, or Smallpox, for study. This is where the Mad Scientist can really wreak evil, if he can stand having to suit up like he’s going to Mars every day for work.

And for the writers, there’s Mad Science Level 5 %!!111 Muhahahaaha!

Ahem. This would be a lab so dangerous, it has to be located in orbit, or possibly not even that close, in order to work with such things as plastic-devouring bacteria (they really exist, but what if you pepped ’em up a bit, and made them multi-antibacterial-resistant?) or prions (what? That &^$ scares me. They aren’t alive, so you can’t kill them, and even incineration might not completely destroy them. Autoclaving certainly doesn’t). With full self-destruct protocols in case things go right, er, wrong, depending on how Mad you are.

For any of these labs, getting your source material is probably going to require a certain level of regulation and licensing. You can’t just order from supply houses in most cases. And if you are going to be putting anything at all down the drain, even if it’s just water, you’d better have all your permits in place as well as testing to prove that it really is water. And if your Mad Scientist wants to work with something like Ebola or smallpox (which has technically been eradicated in the wild, unlike the hemorrhagic fevers, so he can’t just go out and collect it) he’s going to have to get very creative indeed. But that’s probably another post. Or not. Since this is just for writing, and fiction should stay fictional.

All images in this post were created by Cedar Sanderson. Header is a Pseudomonas bacterium, above is Aspergillus fungal hyphae and fruiting bodies on a tomato.

44 thoughts on “Biosafety For the Mad Scientist

  1. I would presume that at Level 5 one does NOT work locally unless absolutely necessary. Telepresence and robotics… assuming whatever it is doesn’t munch silicon or electrical insulation or… &*^^%~ CARRIER LOST

      1. And I’d put it in a designed-decaying orbit around the sun, so if things do go awry, in due course it gets autodestructed no matter what. OTOH, if your research involves “how to bio-initiate a black hole” this may not be the best location.

  2. This is very timely for me, thank you. My current story is set in a world where magic is a branch of engineering and my main character is an agent for the department that investigates unlawful use of magic. He is currently investigating a murder committed by magic and while I read this I realized that of course in such a world there would be a set protocol for dealing with potentially dangerous magical objects.

    The idea of grading labs by the hazardousness of their contents makes sense. So now I need to figure out what a “MSL4” lab would look like…

    1. I’m glad it’s useful! Physical barriers (gloves, coats, suits) and chemical (alcohol, SporKlenz, and bleach) to kill them is how you keep microbes under control. So figure out what stops magic and use that.

  3. Re. supplies. Back in the day, “The Journal of Irreproducable Results” had a paper about how long it took for celestial beings to get through a maze. The angels were obtained from North Carolina Theological Supply. 😉

    (For those too young to remember, North Carolina Biological Supply was your mail-order source for dissection samples, fruit flies, planaria, and other such-like).

    1. Now it’s just Carolina Biological. I’ll be ordering eyeballs there any day for my sixth graders to dissect…

        1. I once labelled a part of a 3d model i built as manufactured by Stark Enterprises. Of course, the model texture was half the resolution i painted it at so it was completely illegible.

      1. I was amused when one company with the then-new “high temperature” superconductors (you didn’t need liquid helium. Mere liquid nitrogen would do!) named itself National Superconductor. (I still have some dead tree Nation Semiconductor databooks…)

          1. Sigh, I can see that. I wish that I had kept those old catalogs from my misspent youth. IIRC, the one from the radioactives supply company required licenses to send you U235 or plutonium – but would ask no questions (other than whether the check had cleared) for some pretty high level activity isotopes.

  4. Dredging out ancient memories, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain showed an example of a BSL 4+++ lab. Underground, with about 4 levels, each needing special decontamination of the researcher before progressing. (Because reasons.)

    It had a really awkward version of full-body protection suits in the lab where they had to deal with a surviving patient. (This was in the movie, in 1970.)

    That bug ate plastic, crystalized blood and caused other mayhem. I no longer have the book, but if memory serves, the ultimate waste-disposal backstop was a small nuke. Naturally, if the bomb went off the bug would have gone wild, thus setting the climax scene.

    BTW, nice Sluggy Freelance reference. One of my computers was named Bun Bun.

  5. A decade or so back, the History Channel ran a series called LIFE AFTER PEOPLE, which showed what would happen if people suddenly disappeared from the planet. The narration was a little sensational, but I thought it was excellent for showing how buildings and other human artifacts would go to wrack and ruin without maintenance. When it was current, I was telling friends to watch the show as a 101 course in post-apocalyptic settings, but I heard a lot of complaints about the premise. The show just had people mysteriously and magically disappearing all at once, with no explanation, and that “Rapture” starting point was just too hard to swallow even if the rest of the episodes were about what would follow. Instant disappearance of every human in the world also led to consequences like pets being left locked inside houses, farm and zoo animals imprisoned in their enclosures, and industrial facilities left running, like atomic power plants and oil refineries, to say nothing of cars in motion and planes in flight.
    My thought was that the extinction of humanity could have been accomplished with the assumption of some artificially engineered and human-specific virus accidentally getting loose from a bio-warfare lab. Natural epidemics burn out without killing everybody, but this would be a super-bug that just wouldn’t stop. We’ve already had a brush in modern times with an epidemic that was approaching such proportions in the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak, but that fortunately passed its peak before killing enough people to cause a breakdown of civilization. Still, you read about it and you can see that it was getting there, and if it had been much worse and lasted much longer, not enough people might have been left to keep things running for a generation or more afterwards.
    I’m guessing that the makers of LIFE AFTER PEOPLE just didn’t want to linger over dying people, then showing their rotting corpses everywhere in the first few weeks, and then skeletons strewn about forever after that. The instant disappearance assumption avoided all that so the show could concentrate on things falling apart, but it was a weird premise to have to accept. On the other hand, if the disappearance of humanity took some time, over a period of a few weeks, instead of instantaneously, that would change a few things. People would let their pets and farm animals run free, for one thing, and operating machinery would be turned off.

    1. As I recall, they didn’t really want to linger on the ‘why humanity suddenly vanished’ but wanted to focus on the effects of how long it would be before all trace of humanity was gone.

      Sort of a theoretical geological ‘abandoned buildings’ thing, as you noted.

      There was a vibe about it that gave me the creeps though, gave me the impression that the show’s makers were anti-human, instead of the ‘what if’ premise they presented.

      1. Oh, you mean like instead of “what if” they were saying “if only”? I got that too. Lots of it going around these days.

        The difference between modern Greenies and old Nazis is mostly the snappy Hugo Boss uniforms.

        1. I’m in agreement with Shadowdancer and Phantom about the attitude the show conveyed. It was rather creepy in that regards.

  6. LEVEL 6!!!! Muuuhuuuhahahaha!

    A lab so dangerous that it must be located more than two light years from the nearest star! Here is where the Mad Scientist studies intelligent nano-disassembler! Very chatty, great at parties, but not fun if you piss them off.

    The only thing that keeps the Mad Scientist from being eaten is witty repartee, bribing them with dog treats, and knock-knock jokes. The little shits just lurve them some knock-knock jokes.

    At the core of the lab is a stellar-scale black hole encased in a time-stasis field. If they get out of their stasis trap and eat everything, they eat the power supply and Level 5 proved to be insufficient when the nano got cranky and ate everything. The antimatter fail-safe blew and caused the Centari Incident when one of the nanomachines wasn’t -completely- destroyed, just sizzled around the edges.

    Emergency use of Power Level 9000 knock-knock jokes was authorized, and barely succeeded. Now the Mad Scientist uses a black hole to im-plode instead of ex-plode.

    There was some concern that the smartass nano might derive the Alcubierre Warp Equations on their own and power their way out of the black hole, being the clever little bastards that they are, but Mad Scientist just said:

    “I know, right? ACTIVATE LEVEL SEVENNNNN!!!! Muuhuuhohohahahaha!!!!”

    1. Level 7: All research is conducted inside of a virtual simulation environment, nested within layered virtual machine security in case the experiment succeeds in hacking the simulation.

    2. Storytime: Once upon a time (2007) I travelled to & from LibertyCon with “Mad” Mike Williamson & his (then rather young) kids. On the way back, said kids got into a knock knock joke session. This wasn’t bad, for a while. Then one went with the “banana” that ends in “orange…. orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” At that point, I’d had enough:


      “Tetraethyl lead.”

      * Mad Mike nearly drives off the road from laughing.

      Tetraethyl lead is indeed an antiknock compound, as the knock-knock jokes stopped cold right there.

      And in 2018 I asked Mike about that incident. He said he didn’t recall it at all. Ah well.

  7. I’ve been shocked about how blase people have become about contagious disease.

    Heck, I got called hysterical last week for saying that measles is one of the most contagious diseases there is, and that alone makes it worth taking seriously.
    (I’m also evidently a Nazi for pointing out that quarantines are not unconstitutional, and were instituted as a matter of course for most of our country’s history.)
    You’d think someone against the use of vaccines would be downright enthusiastic about quarantine, but evidently not.

    I freely admit that I come at this with a jaundiced eye. I’ve helped run a ranch, and I’ve lost more sleep to rotavirus than weather, predators, and calving problems combined. Likely by a factor of ten.

    1. “You’d think someone against the use of vaccines would be downright enthusiastic about quarantine, but evidently not.”

      That would be because most people who are against vaccines are also knee-jerk “don’t tell me what to do” types who haven’t figured out the difference between “authority figure who actually does know better than you” and “authority figure on a power trip.”

      Of course, it would help if there were fewer of the latter than the former, but still.

    2. Yeah, because ‘who cares if some kid gets it, they’ll be fine!’

      Uh, no. Children can still die of the disease. And I was quietly upset that there was an older kid, perhaps 4-5 years of age, coughing in a way that sounded very, very much like whooping cough at the clinic when I went to get a script re-issued recently. I’m vaccinated, but my baby girl isn’t yet, because the scheduled shot for it is at 1 year of age. Poor kid sounded like he was having a really bad time of it.

    3. Oh yeah. The anti-vax people down under get very angry about the fact that the government is starting to require vaccination records all the way to high school. There’ve just been too many outbreaks. I actually found out that there is a breathing room of something like 2 weeks or so, as long as you alert your doctor you’ll be a touch late; my baby’s date for one fell on the New Year holidays so I wouldn’t have been able to get it (local doc clinics were closed, it’s not something generally offered at most hospitals unless it’s one for kids.)

      1. Anti-vaxers are that special kind of stupid that will base their life on some second-hand Mother Jones article, but they’ll refuse to believe 150 years worth of infectious disease medicine.

        If it wasn’t for the problem of herd immunity, I’d say leave them to it.

        1. Aye. If someone being stupid only endangers themselves, that’s their lookout. But when they risk others? That’s another matter entirely.

          I have NO desire to return to the “bad old days” – and I was *MIGHTY* lucky in that the “childhood illnesses” I had were as mild as they were. And I will tell the world that mild as they were, I’d have traded them for a series of needle-sticks without hesitation. And I am NOT fan of needles. I am about a month and a half from the second shot of Shingrix. I will get it. The alternative, despite my likely feeling really lousy for a few days, is potentially far worse. Those who’ve had shingles… well, feeling like crap for a few days is a trade they wish they could have made. I’ll cope.

    4. Now you’ve got me wondering — what happened to WHO (World Health Organization)? Back in 1959, to travel to Europe, I had to have a WHO certificate showing my vaccinations and so forth — I still have it somewhere, that’s the only reason I know what my parents when through to take us kids with them. Seemed to make sense, and I’ll bet it helped cut down on the transmission of disease by airplane travel? But I know no one has asked me for my WHO certification recently…

      1. I had occasion to take a look at their budget history the other week. The budget entry for “communicable diseases” has gone steadily down for more than a decade now. (The entries for “climate change” and what is obviously the one under which they lump their apparatchiks and cronies have steadily increased at the same time.)

  8. If you don’t have good biosafety procedures, you can end up with some kid getting bitten by a spider you accidentally dosed with radiation.

      1. On the plus side their ‘researcher sense’ will warn them if something is close to getting loose.

  9. Actually you can destroy prions, it just takes a lot longer than people want to use. 1600°F+ for over 1/2 hour, though you should go at least 45 minutes.

    1. Uh, aluminum melts at 1,220°F. That decontamination procedure is going to be rather hard on my pots and pans … 1,600°F is up into the range where everything glows orange-red due to thermal radiation.

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