There is a wonderfully helpful spirit in the scientific community, especially when it comes to sharing reagents and tools. If one lab develops something handy and publishes it in a paper, interested readers need only to drop an email to the lab head and request a sample for their own experiments. (In fact, most journals deem such assistance mandatory, though I don’t think your average researcher needs threats as an incentive to share the love.)

While sometimes such requests fall on deaf ears, in my experience, being ignored or fobbed off is rare. So if everyone is all friendly and touchy-feely about providing stuff promptly, how then can we measure relative kindness?

Clearly, some help is more helpful than others. When it comes to plasmid DNA,  it is relatively straightforward for a researcher to make copies from a tiny, forensic amount of the original. Because of this, it’s become trendy in recent years to send out DNA, not in a goodly amount in a tube, but as spots dried onto a piece of filter paper. This spot can be rehydrated and zapped into E. coli bacteria, which will create copies of the plasmid which you can then liberate from the bugs in large quantities.

No big deal, right? But it does take at least two days, and a few hours of your life manipulating bugs, plates and columns at your bench. Whereas if someone sends you a lovely big wodge of DNA, and you only want to do an experiment a few times, you’d be able to perform it straightaway without faffing around with the cloning step.

Earlier this week, I requested a plasmid from a very big, very famous American lab. I was charmed that the professor answered personally, on the same day he received the email, and that he immediately instructed his post-doc to send it out. I was further charmed by the friendliness of the post-doc, who emailed to say he’d sent it Fedex that very same day.

It had not escaped my notice, though, that if the plasmid arrived today, and there was a goodly amount, I could perform my experiment this afternoon and have slides ready on Monday, which in turn could be imaged and analyzed before I went on holiday that coming weekend – giving me a significant edge on my paper revision deadline. I wouldn’t dare have asked for more than a dried spot, but I was sort of hoping the post-doc would sense my desperate, fellow-post-doc-angst vibes across the many miles between us.

And so it was that the Fedex package arrived. And I knew immediately how the DNA had been sent — the package was flat as a pancake. I fondled it optimistically, but there was definitely no tube in there, not even one of those weeny PCR-sized tubes.

Ah well, I thought philosophically as I roused the bugs from their dormant sleep in the -70 freezer. It’s definitely possible to be too greedy. The lab in question probably sends out hundreds of plasmids a week, and it’s just not practical to feed the five thousand. In fact, the post-doc was doing me a favor: I have way too much on on Monday, and another experiment probably would have tipped the balance.

Besides, I like bacterial work: it reminds me of my lost youth as a bona fide microbiologist.

So let’s hear it for the kindness of strangers, something that definitely makes the scientific world go round.