Patrick Wu

Canvas Kit Review: Patience is a Virtue

I was really excited to get my Amino Labs Canvas Kit in the mail, which came as a Black Friday bonus with the purchase of a copy of Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero.

It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a proper lab, but the kit came with everything that I needed in order to create my own agar plates and grow my own colourful bacteria, with just a few household materials. Who could pass up on that opportunity?

The Canvas Kit normally starts at $24 USD (plus shipping), but you can get two more colours for $37 USD. The one that I got only had one colour: purple.

Getting Ready

My bonus kits (The Canvas Kit and DNA Extraction Kit) came along with my copy of Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero. Two pairs of sterile nitrile gloves are also helpfully provided in the box as well.

The first thing to do was to get everything out of the shipping container and into the fridge, to keep the bacteria cold. Although the bags are sealed and safe to put into the fridge, Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero recommends that you set up your main workspace away from the kitchen and the bathroom for the rest of the experiment. Keeping bacteria away from food surfaces is always good practice even if they’re pretty harmless. Keeping plates away from humid areas like bathrooms reduces the risk of mould contamination.

I didn’t have a lot of great places in my house for the experiment, unfortunately. I eventually settled on my guest living room coffee table, which I called the Table of Science.

Not to be confused with this Table of Science.

The Canvas Kit also provides you with a very large Inactivation Bag, which will be used to store waste from the experiment. I decided to prop it up in an old plastic pail.

Making Some Plates

This was incredibly straightforward: boil the provided sterile water in the microwave, add the agar powder, and try to swirl to mix without burning your fingers off.

Next was to add the convenient little pill of chloramphenicol to the mix. This is an antibiotic which will kill off other bacteria that might otherwise contaminate the experiment. The bacteria we want to grow has chloramphenicol resistance, which means it will be the only one that will survive on the plate.

It was just a matter of pouring the liquid into the adorably tiny plates provided in the kit, and then let them cool to set the agar.

Dissolving the agar, adding the chloramphenicol, and cooling the plates. Not pictured: oven mitts, because that would have been smart.

Making Paint

Now for the good part. The Canvas Kit comes with a small tube of bacteria called an agar stab. Unfortunately, it’s not enough bacteria to paint with, so I have to grow my own palette plate of bacterial paint first. This involves streaking cells from the agar stab onto one of the plates.

The instruction manual provides you with helpful templates to trace out a streak plate. All you have to do is use one of the sterile plastic loops in the kit to do so.

See that little white spot near the top middle? That’s not contamination; it’s just a piece of the antibiotic gel capsule that didn’t fully dissolve.

The Waiting Game

E. coli is a pretty fast-growing bacterium. It doubles about every 20 minutes, as long as they’re incubated at 37°C.

The problem was that I had no incubator in my house, so I had to let my plates grow at room temperature.

I suppose the other problem, then, is that room temperature in my house is 19°C. (I’m being energy-efficient and this was done during the winter.) The bacteria aren’t harmed at this temperature. They do have a bit of an attitude about it, though, so they grow much slower.

Although the instruction manual suggested that room temperature growth would take about an extra day instead of the traditional 24 hours, I found that my first streak plate took about 3 or 4 days before anything significant started to show up.

Only a small part of the plate was showing growth by Day 3.

In fact, I was growing concerned about the low growth around day 4, so I made another streak plate from the original stock. What’s strange is that this second streak plate grew much faster than the first, and eventually both of them reached maturity at around the same time.

About a day after I started Plate 2, the rest of Plate 1’s growth started to show through. By around Day 6, you can start to see a faint purple colour from the first stock. You’ll have to trust me on the colour: the Table of Science hides it a little better than I thought.

The Waiting Game 2: The Sequel

Now I had not just one, but two palettes of bacterial paint to work with. It was time to get a little creative.

I relabeled the plates S1 and S2 (Stock 1 and Stock 2) and used my last two blank plates to create one piece of artwork for each stock. I was curious to see how well they each performed, given how slowly Stock 1 grew.

Because I picked up a lot of bacteria from my palettes, you can already see faint outlines of what I drew even at Day 0.

The second growth cycle of the art was much faster, probably because I put a lot more bacteria down on the plates. Within 24 hours, I already started seeing my art develop, and within 48 hours, a faint purple tinge was already showing up on both plates. Full colour was visible after another day or so.

By Day 2, you can already see clear outlines of the bacteria. By Day 4, the colour has started to show through.

I am very pleased with how these (eventually) turned out. I am, however, a little less pleased with my painting skill.

Disposal and Cleanup

Amino Labs puts a lot of emphasis on safe and responsible DIY science and provides explicit instructions on how to safely neutralize and dispose of the waste products.

It’s pretty easy: everything that touched bacteria ends up in the Inactivation Bag for sterilization. All the loops, plates, and tubes went into the Inactivation Bag with a 1:5 mix of bleach and warm water. This was to make sure all the bacteria that were growing in the experiment end up… not.

After 24 hours, I cut a corner of the bag to drain the liquid into the toilet, then threw the rest into the black bin for garbage.

Analysis

I had expected that bacterial growth would take a few extra days because of my rather cold house, but my first stock plate took much longer than I expected. My second stock plate grew much faster than my first, which leads me to believe one or more of the following happened:

  1. The leftover piece of gel capsule in Stock 1 might have meant that I didn’t swirl the antibiotic in thoroughly enough when pouring. This might lead to a higher antibiotic concentration in Stock 1 which would slow things down.
  2. I didn’t pick up a lot of bacteria when I was streaking Stock 1. I really made sure that I picked up a good amount of bacteria when I was remaking Stock 2, which is probably why it seems to grow faster.
  3. The Science Gods were displeased with my tribute.
Memo to self: the sacrifice needs to happen before the experiment.

Final Verdict

The Canvas Kit is an easy way to learn about bacterial growth and gives you a chance to be creative and expressive with science. The instruction manual on Amino Labs’ website is straightforward and easy to understand, and it also tells you what you should expect to see.

The bacteria are also pretty robust. I still managed to get results even though I did not give my bacteria very friendly conditions to grow. Users who incubate their plates in a warm place should have no problems seeing results as well.

The companion chapter in Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero also gives a thorough description of our little E. coli friends. I would highly recommend using it as a teaching resource for those who want to learn more about what they see from the Canvas Kit.

Despite a few hiccups—and they’re incredibly minor hiccups if you talk to a biologist—this was a positive experience and I would encourage everybody to try for themselves.

If you want some inspiration, you should take a look at Petri Dish Picasso, a University of Calgary student group that does much more sophisticated biopainting.

Now then… what kit should I play with next?

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