Some years ago, when I first started growing mushrooms using a basic still-air box for sterile work, I began to think about how I might expand my working space to accommodate a wider array of lab work.
So after Cat and I moved into a new home last year with a large semi-finished attic space, I pounced on the opportunity to build a clean-room where I could put a custom-built laminar flow hood and have space for mycology work.
I started by building the flow hood, which I will show pics and provide more info on later. But once it was built, I began to think about what I needed and how I could build a mini-cleanroom that would work in the attic at minimal cost.
My chief needs and concerns at the time included:
- The attic has poor ventilation with several skylights that stay open year-round to help dissipate heat.
- The attic space is full of contamination; mainly various forms of mold and rot.
- The attic space is unconditioned with no filtration, heat or A/C.
My original thought process was such that if I could create a barrier between the attic air and the clean sterile air put out by my flow hood, I would be able to do proper sterile work without losing time and materials to contamination.
I also read Paul Stamets’ Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms which discusses the idea of creating progressively clean spaces and techniques for mitigation the transfer of contamination into a cleanroom.
Using the limited information and ideas I had at the time, I ended up building a little tent-like cleanroom using pvc pipe and 3.5mil plastic sheeting.
Here are some photos of the build and where I’ve been working for the last six months or so.
You can kind of see that what I built was essentially a room inside of a room. It’s nothing more than a PVC frame with plastic sheeting taped all over it.
Notice the skylights above the tent. I originally thought that my cleanroom needed to have a roof so that any airborne contaminates that might come in from the skylights would be deflected.
I also made it so that there is an initial room where one could potentially wipe themselves down before entering into the main room of the lab. This comes from Stamets, whose own lab has upwards of five separate rooms that progressively lead into the cleanest area.
The plastic strips were designed to help keep dirty air from entering the tent. Once you enter into this room and do an initial clean and wipe-down of yourself, the idea was that you would then unzip the ZipWall and enter into the cleanest portion of the lab.
All of this is completely unnecessary, by the way. And I’ll get to that in a moment, but building this really helped me gain confidence and had I not built this, I might have put off getting back into mycology work altogether.
Anyway, once you enter through the first room and past the ZipWall, here’s what you see.
By and large, this lab has served me well. It definitely smells sterile compared to the rest of the attic. My rate of contamination has been approaching 0%. This lab has also provided everything else I wanted: shelving space, workbench space, room for my flow hood and isolation from the dirty attic air.
But, I’ve learned so much since building this first lab. First and foremost, I’ve learned that proper sterile technique is far more effective at mitigating contamination.
I’ve seen photos of amateur mycologists doing sterile work on a dirty counter in their bathrooms in a run down trailer house. And they were completely successful because they knew good sterile technique and were able to work using a basic still-air box (SAB) to mitigate contams from the surrounding environment.
I’m not at all proposing that cleanrooms aren’t necessary or that SABs are the answer to anyone wanting to do sterile work, but it certainly makes a good argument that having a tent isn’t necessary to be successful.
One thing I completely disregarded was that no amount of tent would be able to prevent the biggest vector of contamination: me.
We carry on our bodies, in our breath, on our phones, etc an enormous amount of organisms and my cleanroom was never going to mitigate that vector on its own. The one advantage of the tent is that it does reduce the amount of attic air it has to filter, improving the longevity of my HEPA filter.
Psychological Benefits of My First Lab
I don’t want to discount the first version of the lab completely. This lab gave me some piece-of-mind, misguided as it may have been. It allowed me to move forward with one less concern weighing on me as I proceeded with more and more mycology research and experimentation.
It also provided me a dedicated work-space that was also easy to clean. And it really does have its own energy. It puts me in a focused flow state where I can more easily visualize what’s happening at a micro-level and what actions and movements I need to make in order to accomplish a task successfully. I don’t think I would have had this sort of experience had I just put the flow hood up on a table in the open air of my attic.
For new diy science folks, I suggest never discounting the psychological barriers to be considered when developing a strategy for learning. It is more important to manage your mind, well-being, expectations, etc and incorporate them into your methodologies so that you can overcome the mental hurdles associated with learning something new, often difficult and riddled with failure, and maintain the motivation to keep moving forward.
So while this tent really wasn’t and isn’t necessary to do mycology work, it served a variety of needs that I had and for that, I’m grateful. I wouldn’t be able to be here talking about what I want and need in the next iteration of my lab had I not had this experience.
Now Under Construction: EMB Lab v2
There is an adjacent room in my attic space that was finished some thirty years ago. I’ve decided that it is time to update this space and take what I’ve learned and where I plan to go and use that to expand the lab. I have a lot of new needs for a lab space and it doesn’t hurt to make some much needed improvements to this hundred year-old house in which we live.
I’m excited to announce the construction of the new lab space has commenced!
Plans for the New EverymanBio Lab
Here’s what I’m planning to do to prepare the space for the new lab build-out:
- Refinish the beautiful douglas fir wood floors and seal them (this will make cleaning the floors much easier as well as brighten things up)
- Install a Portable A/C to keep the space comfortable in the summer (this also allows me to close some sky-lights which help with cleanliness as well)
- Add a fresh coat of paint
- Install new bright and energy-efficient lighting
What Kind of Work the Lab will Support
The lab will be partitioned to support the various kinds of research and experiments I plan to do with a primary wet-lab workbench as the central hub. The room will also accommodate the following:
- Space for my flow hood that is open to the rest of the lab
- PCR thermocycler for DNA replication, sequencing and more
- Electrophoresis gel-box and lighting
- Microscopy section for creating, viewing and photographing slides
- Mushroom grow tent with humidity and fresh air controls
- Small culture incubator
- Fridge for culture library and stock cultures
- Greenhouse for botany and microgreen experiments
- Maker table for diy electronics and instrumentation prototyping
- Plenty of storage for disposables
- Racks for forceps, pipettors, reagents and more
- Dark-room box for photosensitive projects and photography
- Space for a laptop and large monitor
- Mounted cameras for live-streams and videos
I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to have this opportunity and my hope is that eventually, the lab will be buzzing with ongoing meaningful work that inspires and educates a new cohort of amateur learners.
Perhaps this lab space will evolve into a community lab that serves the South Los Angeles and greater area. This is only the beginning of many great things to come!
For now, its back to work on the lab, starting with those floors! Be sure to follow the EverymanBio Instagram for ongoing updates and photos tracking the progress of the build.