A day in the life of a returning spider lab

14 July 2020

Alistair McGregor’s group at Oxford Brookes University, UK, uses Drosophila and the common house spider Parasteatoda tepidariorum to understand how different shapes and sizes of animals evolve. Back in 2016, two PhD students in Alistair’s lab shared a day in the life of a spider lab. Four years and one pandemic later, we caught up with Alistair to find out how his lab has responded to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

‘Normal’ spider care

The lab’s spider culture was originally founded from spiders collected from a basement in Göttingen, Germany. The spiders are fed twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, and mated females get an extra feed on a Wednesday. Females get crickets while males and juveniles are given flies.

In normal circumstances, lab members collect cocoons from females, which are produced every four days. There are usually hundreds of embryos per cocoon. Developing embryos can be kept in halocarbon oil so that the team can identify the exact stage of embryogenesis. This is key for the different approaches the lab uses to study development.

The cocoon with hundreds of embryos (left) and a juvenile spider (right)

It takes about 10 days for the embryos to develop into translucent, hairless, immotile hatchling spiders. Once the juveniles have progressed through several moults and eaten some flies, and siblings, they are separated into individual vials. It takes several weeks after hatching for the spiders to reach reproductive maturity.

The return of the spider lab

Over Zoom, we spoke with Alistair to find out about his lab’s lockdown and the return to the bench.

We have made a safe plan.

“People are going in on Mondays to Fridays in shifts. There are three shifts a day and we have divided the lab up into different zones. In the first phase, there will be one person in each zone. As we move forwards I hope we can put more people in the labs while maintaining social distancing. The teaching labs are available over the summer, so that has given us a bit more space to use!”

We had reached the stage where people were keen to return.

“The rest of the UK is opening up to some extent, but we want people to feel comfortable and safe. Therefore the university has permitted researchers to voluntarily return to the research labs to carry out work that cannot be done at home. To avoid using public transport we have allowed people to drive in and use the car park even if they do not have a permit.

The university allowed essential maintenance during lockdown, so some people could go in and cook fly food or flip the stocks. There were three major Drosophila flips during lockdown, so that kept us going. As for the spiders, they are not dangerous or genetically modified, and so one of my postdocs took them home! They are happily back in the lab, but she was feeding them at home for a few weeks.”

We had two new PhD students do their rotations during lockdown.

“They were expecting lab work but they got bioinformatics projects instead! They were both successful though and have resulted in two submitted papers. We have an annual monitoring process for PhD students where they have to submit a report every summer, so my students also worked on that.”

We are trying to prioritise access for final year PhD students.

“There might be a second lockdown, of course we have no idea. That is why we have started to go back with a conservative plan. We are trying to prioritise access for final year PhD students so that they can finish vital experiments.”

Morale has stayed high!

“The lab is a positive bunch. We still had meetings and journal clubs, and a virtual pub quiz every week. At the start I think we were wondering what we could do at home, but then it became overwhelming because there was so much that could be done!”

We’d love to hear how you’re all doing and if you’re returning to the bench, so please do get in touch if you have a story to share!

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