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Scientist puts a tube into a fixed-angle centrifuge rotor

Why Scientists Need Centrifuges

From benchtop models to commercial units, this equipment is crucial in many labs

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Although it’s easy to separate egg yolks by hand, scientists often face more complex separations. For those, scientists use centrifuges—floor models and benchtop ones with various ranges of spinning rates. Despite the diversity of devices, most scientists would agree with a single statement: A centrifuge is an indispensable lab tool.

At the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training in Dublin, Ireland, bioanalytical researcher Sara Carillo, PhD, uses centrifuges in a range of processes—such as sample digestions and buffer exchanges—to analyze biopharmaceuticals. As she says, “A centrifuge is one of the most used pieces of equipment in any laboratory.”

It takes a collection

Most labs use more than one type of centrifuge to serve different purposes. For biopharmaceutical analysis, for example, Carillo and her colleagues use small benchtop centrifuges to precipitate undesired salts and contaminants or to buffer exchange proteins from their formulation salts. Their buffer exchanges are designed to improve protein stability. The team aims to ready samples for mass spectrometry analysis while maintaining the protein’s native state. For early stages of lab-scale biopharmaceutical production, Carillo often opts for bigger, refrigerated centrifuges 

At Northeastern University in Boston, Eduardo Sanchez, clinical laboratory general supervisor, and his colleagues use centrifuges for clinical and R&D projects. “In the clinical COVID testing lab, our team uses a benchtop centrifuge to remove bubbles from our PCR reactions in 96-well PCR plates,” he says. They also use centrifuges to obtain serum by spinning down blood samples in their clinical development processes. 

Most labs use more than one type of centrifuge to serve different purposes.

For many of these processes, Sanchez says, “there is almost daily utilization of workbench mini-centrifuges to make sure samples and reagents are at the bottom of tubes to prevent loss when opening it.” Preventing that loss is crucial, Sanchez explains, as their work demands precise volumes and the materials involved are costly. 

Lots of spinning

According to Kalstein, a Paris-based equipment manufacturer: “When spinning at very high speeds, a centrifuge can speed up the separation of the elements in question in a fairly short time, compared to the time that would have to be expected if the process is done by gravity.”  

Consequently, a centrifuge is often simply the best tool for a job in clinical or basic research, but it’s not just about speed.  “I don’t believe the same tasks can be performed in a different way with the same performance,” Carillo says. “In some cases, for example for buffer exchange, applying vacuum can be an alternative, but the alternative process will likely result in lower recovery of the analytes of interest.” 

More than a convenience, a centrifuge can be mandatory. If regulators approved a clinical assay with a centrifuge-based step, for instance, that’s how labs must run the assay. Plus, one centrifuge is usually not enough in a clinic. Sanchez’s lab has multiple centrifuges so they can keep working should one unit go down.

So, much of science and medicine only moves ahead with lots of spinning.