Throughout the year, the editors of BioTechniques attend a number of conferences in a variety of scientific disciplines to meet with researchers and thought-leaders. ‘While our conversations generally center around the latest methods and technologies driving various research efforts, a new topic is being brought up more and more often in these discussions: the emergence of digital tools to quickly access scientific information in the lab. Given the explosion of smartphones, digital readers, and tablet devices in recent years, this should come as no shock. But more applications are being designed now with the goal of making life at the bench a little easier for everyone: small devices can provide information and reference material that, in the past, would have required either a trip to the library or a stint in front of the lab computer. In light of this changing landscape of tools, we thought it would be interesting to survey the current offerings of applications — that is, apps — that have been expressly designed with the bench scientist in mind.
Genelndex HD is a tool available for iPhones and iPads that enables you to find out all the relevant information on your gene of interest. After typing the gene name into a search box, Genelndex returns a series of entries on the gene as well as related genes. From there you can click through to RefSeq Summaries, descriptions, maps of location in the genome, along with links to PubMed, GENATLAS, NCBI, CNV, KEGG, and the UCSC Genome browser to name a few. The value of the Genelndex HD app is its one-stop nature: starting with only a name, you can link out to most common databases that supply the information you need quickly.
Apps aimed at simplifying experimental design ate also becoming increasingly available. Buffers is another app available for iPhones and iPads that can act as both a lab calculator and a reference tool for designing solutions for pH control. While Buffers can help with solutions, other apps — available on many platforms — can help a young scientist work out the correct conditions and reagent concentrations when it comes to designing their PCR reactions.
Calculating concentrations and rapidly linking out to critical databases are obviously helpful for everyday lab work, hut the true value of these devices seems to lie in their ability to store and organize information. For cataloguing cell staining reagents, the Molecular Probes company has created an app called Cell Stain 3D, which superimposes a variety of common stains, dyes, and fluorophores onto a virtual 3-D cell. For visualizing organs in 3-D, the 3D Brain app created by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory allows a user to rotate a labeled image of the human brain with associated descriptions of the various regions. Indeed, many apps serve as next generation textbooks or enhanced catalogues, permitting rapid access to information.
While a growing number of researchers seem to be turning to these devices and apps, there are still those that prefer paper over handheld digital technologies. Could a small tablet PC one day be the laboratory device of choice, replacing calculators, computers — and even many textbooks and journals? Or will their use augment more traditional forms of information delivery? Our quick survey of apps for scientists definitely showed that there is value in these tools, but only time will tell how far their use will extend. If you have an app that has helped you in the lab, please share it with us by posting at our Molecular Biology Forums under “To the Editor (http://molecularbiology.forums.biotechniques.com) or send an email directly to the editors (firstname.lastname@example.org).