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A Guide to Laboratory Rockers and Shakers

How to select rockers and shakers to maximize efficiency in your lab

by
Tasmiha Khan

Tasmiha Khan is an independent writer with work appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and National Geographic, among others. Currently, Khan covers...

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In scientific research, laboratory rockers and shakers are crucial, yet often underappreciated, components. They are primarily tasked with providing controlled agitation and mixing of various samples, thereby assisting in an array of scientific procedures. From cell culture to molecular biology techniques, these devices perform pivotal roles. To optimize laboratory workflows and achieve precise results, it's essential to understand the distinctions between rockers and shakers, and the factors that should inform their selection.

Main applications

Laboratory rockers and shakers find diverse applications in many scientific disciplines. Their role in these applications ranges from gentle agitation to vigorous shaking, each serving specific purposes. Some of the common uses include:

Cell culture: These devices are frequently used in cell culture experiments, providing necessary agitation for cell suspension, growth, and aeration. They facilitate the uniform distribution of gasses and nutrients, ensuring optimal cell health and promoting growth rates.

Molecular biology: In molecular biology techniques such as DNA hybridization, protein binding, and blotting, gentle mixing of samples and reagents is a prerequisite. Rockers and shakers offer the necessary motion for consistent and efficient reactions, enhancing the reproducibility and accuracy of experimental results.

Incubation: In biochemistry and microbiology research, it is essential to maintain samples at specific temperatures and agitation levels to achieve desired reaction kinetics. Laboratory rockers and shakers with built-in incubation capabilities enable precise control over these conditions, creating optimal environments for biochemical reactions and incubation.

Extraction and solubility studies: When substances are extracted from solid matrices or solubility profiles are assessed, gentle agitation helps enhance contact between the solvent and the sample. Rockers and shakers facilitate these extraction and dissolution processes, improving the speed and accuracy of various analytical procedures.

Differences between rockers and shakers

Though rockers and shakers serve similar purposes, they have significant differences in design, functionality, and cost. They can range in price from a few hundred dollars to well over $8,000, so understanding these differences is crucial when considering a purchase for a research lab.

Rockers: Laboratory rockers are typically small, benchtop instruments that provide a gentle rocking motion, often similar to a seesaw. The platform moves back and forth at a controlled tilt angle, ideal for applications requiring low-speed, low-impact agitation such as staining, washing, and hybridization.

Shakers: Shakers can vary significantly in size, from benchtop models to large, stackable units. They generate more vigorous shaking or orbital motion with the platform moving in a circular or elliptical pattern, imparting greater kinetic energy to the samples. This type of motion is well-suited for applications requiring higher agitation speeds, such as cell culture, protein extraction, and mixing viscous samples.

Considerations for purchasing

Selecting the most suitable laboratory rocker or shaker entails considering several factors that align with the specific needs and applications of your lab. It is important to consider the type of motion desired, the speed and orbit/tilt required for optimal results, and the size or capacity of the device. 

To aid in your decision-making process, here are a few additional considerations:

Agitation speed and range: Given the variety of applications for rockers and shakers, the speed range of the device is an essential aspect to consider. Some instruments provide a variable speed control option, allowing for fine-tuning of agitation parameters to suit specific requirements. For example, procedures like DNA extractions might require a more vigorous agitation speed compared to processes such as staining or blotting that require a gentle rocking motion.

Platform size and capacity: The size of the platform and its weight-bearing capacity are additional factors to consider. These parameters should align with the size and number of samples your lab typically handles. Ensure the rocker or shaker you select can comfortably accommodate your sample containers, which could range from tubes and flasks to larger vessels or microplates.

Motion type: The choice between a gentle rocking motion and a more vigorous shaking largely depends on the specific applications at hand. For instance, processes requiring minimal disturbance, such as gel staining, would benefit from a gentle rocking motion. In contrast, more vigorous shaking or orbital motion is necessary for applications like cell culture or protein extraction.

Temperature control: Associate professor of chemistry Erika Taylor at Wesleyan University emphasizes that “the temperature control feature of these devices can be a significant factor, especially for tasks like protein expression, where maintaining temperatures from 15-37 °C is crucial.” Models equipped with heating and cooling capabilities are especially valuable for biochemistry, microbiology, and cell culture studies.

Vessel clamps/holders: The vessel clamps or holders should securely accommodate the tubes, flasks, or vessels you plan to use. Some models feature adjustable clamps or holders, which is an advantage when dealing with different types of vessels.

Durability and reliability: Laboratory rockers and shakers  can be a  substantial investment for any research lab, so being diligent about proper maintenance is key to ensuring a worthwhile investment..  Aspects such as build quality, the materials used in the construction, and the manufacturer's warranty should also be considered to improve the instrument’s lifespan.

Versatility: Rockers and shakers with interchangeable platforms provide additional flexibility, especially when dealing with various types of vessels. Optional attachments or accessories might also be beneficial depending on your laboratory's needs.

Ease of use: The user interface and control options are also key factors. Some models come equipped with digital displays allowing precise control over parameters like speed, tilt, and temperature. Others may use simpler dial or switch controls, which can be preferable for some users.

Noise level: In a shared laboratory environment, the noise level of the device is also worth considering. Some models are designed to operate quietly, contributing to a more comfortable and conducive working environment.

Laboratory rockers and shakers play a vital role in the seamless execution of scientific experiments, fostering efficient chemical reactions and promoting cell cultures. When purchasing these tools, it's crucial to consider their speed control, tilt control, capacity, temperature regulation, and other features that are relevant to your specific applications. By carefully considering these factors, you can select a rocker or shaker that not only meets your specific needs but also streamlines your laboratory processes, enhances the consistency and reliability of your results, and saves valuable time.