My name is Doc Breen, a former Molecular Biologist and current teacher of Biology at an international school in Shanghai. I am also an armchair occultist, a lad rejected from every esoteric organization in every land. My Chinese is close to nonexistent and it is hard to quell the rabblement of teenagers and ignite the spark of learning in your native tongue, so I’m always on the look out for ways to make Biology fun. Anything I can do to allow students to transcend the language barrier and learn the fundamental principles of the Science is what I strive for.
During my many years working in a cthonic Molecular Biology lab, I could not tell you how many DNA extractions I had performed. It’s an easy procedure. Doing the same thing with a cohort of disobedient students?
In my University lab we had special equipment, a Legion of doctorate students, technicians, professors and were standing on the shoulders of decades of experience. My High School lab looks like it hasn’t seen a mop since the seventies.
During previous experiments teaching Chemistry in China I had even failed to obtain the specific chemicals necessary for my working (I was trying to make an Iodine clock). As a fool, I thought that it might be fun to try a DNA extraction in class. The chemistry is basic but life is so elegant and delicate I expected to fail. As it turned out, I was happily misguided.
It should be noted here then that modern Science was born of Medieval Alchemy. People forget that the corpus of literature Newton wrote on esoteric subjects was far more voluminous than the brief treatise on Math and Physics. I’m not going to say that the Occult writings come close to the importance of the other stuff, but there is something to be said of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Science should not forget its origins lest it risks becoming exactly the kind of hollow dogma it served to shun.
Now, a warning. All great magickal texts precede the methodologies and results with staunch advisory to not pursue the path without proper protection and guidance. My greatest fear was that the students would eat the strawberries. That the subject of our investigation would certainly become lost in the abyss of their intestines before being re-purposed for reincarnation. I elected to place a binding sigil on the blackboard. A gaunt manga face of terror below chalk capital letters “DO NOT EAT THE STRAWBERRIES”, then below, smaller and in parenthesis “(They are poisoned)”. Obviously they weren’t. I’m not a maniac. Below the chalk face of abject existential horror was written “1 strawberry = 1 F”. I wasn’t going to fail anybody. I’m not a sadist. But previous experience conducting evolutionary experiments considering the beaks of Darwin’s Finches in the classroom with skittles, forks and chopsticks had taught me that these kids had poor self-discipline in the presence of food.
Nigredo — Mechanical destruction of the Strawberry.
We start with the whole organism. The heart-shaped strawberry. A many splendoured thing. But we seek the philosophers stone. Locked away, inside the nucleus. Deoxyribosenucleic acid. DNA. Therein lies the secret to the beauty and complexity of life. Also it’s horrors. Disease and death are merely bugs in an imperfect code executed by a deaf-blind operating system. Impenetrable the molecule is in its current state. It is necessary to pierce the veil. To advance to the next sphere of biochemistry. We need to isolate individual cells.
I circumambulate the lab and place two or three strawberries on a filthy cloth which was conveniently located on each bench (further deterrent for consumption).
In Alchemy the state of Nigredo refers to decomposition or putrefaction. We cannot observe the DNA to interrogate its mysteries in situ. The Strawberry is still alive, the DNA is in use. Destruction is essential, the first path on a journey towards hidden esoteric knowledge.
In my lab, in order to break the cell up into a more manageable substance strawberries were placed in Ziploc bags and mashed between fingers, with palms and even under textbooks. One group was too enthusiastic in this first stage and ruptured their bag. It is important not to be too enthusiastic on one’s journey for advancement. Eagerness too erratic can result in undesirable outcomes. Fortunately for these kids, we were able to transfer their Strawberry mush into a fresh beaker and continue.
Citrinitas — Obtaining the Cell Lysate
We have a bag of single cells. What was a strawberry, no longer is. But each cell has the potential to become a new strawberry. The blueprint for the all is contained in the individual. In alchemy, Rubedo is the drawing of the Solar light. Much like the Sun is the center of our solar system, the nucleus is the center of the cell. How are we to rupture the cell? Release the DNA from a treasure chest that is the nucleus? Extraction Buffer.
Extraction Buffer is nothing more than soapy salty water.
In Alchemical Philosophy salt was part of a philosophical trinity including Sulfur and Mercury. It represents the crystallization and manifestation of more subtle forces.
In Chemistry a salt is any ionic compound which results from the neutralization of an acid and a base. The two opposing pillars and the harmony their unity produces.
The salt we used was table salt. NaCl. In the experiment it serves to dehydrate the cell. To facilitate its further destruction. To release the molecular from the cellular and to create a lystate for purification.
It’s interesting that the alchemical symbol for salt is the alchemical symbol for the Sun divided. The sun symbol recapitulates the structure of the cell surrounded by a protective membrane with a nucleus as its center. Salt facilitates the destruction of the cell for it’s transubstantiation into the final desired form of this Great Work, but it cannot act alone.
Also required for destruction of the cell was detergent. The cell is surrounded by a lipid cell membrane. The salt increased the polarity of forces acting on this membrane, but not quite enough to break through the sphere. It needs something more. We used soap. A surfactant. Specifically, washing-up liquid. Detergents act to break through cell membranes for reasons that I will not explain here. Nor did I explain it to the students. It just does, right? We will be further exploring lipids and detergents in the classroom with plates of milk, food dye and soap later.
In this case the detergent is analogous to the philosophical principle of Sulfur and all the penetrating, diffusive, movable properties that it is associated with.
These compounds were present in small amounts in the medium, a messenger to help spread their action throughout the cells and ensure a homogenous solution of cell lysate was necessary. The third part of the trinity. In the alchemical world this is represented by Mercury, for us it was water.
The students now had a (hopefully unruptured) bag of soapy, salty, strawberry juice. What we Science nerds would call Cell Lysate. What looked to the layperson as little more than red gunk.
Albedo — Filtration of the decellularized strawberry.
Now we have the subject in a state of chaos. A solution containing much of the substance of interest, but also a qlipoth of unwanted material. We want to separate the liquids from the solids, for the husks of the strawberry shells contain not DNA. Filtration was the next step in the Chemistry.
In alchemy Albedo refers to a purification. Following the mass confusion of the previous stages, the subject must discard all that which does not facilitate progress in attaining one’s goal. By filtering the strawberry gunk my students have purified the substance and permit its advancement towards the final stage.
A column was erected in the form of a test tube and a funnel inserted. A unity of two cylinders. Into this was placed a bud of cotton wool, stretched out so that the consistency of fluffiness was like that of a cloud. The macerated berries were placed upon the cotton. Nothing came through at first. The stage of purification and patience. The strawberry essence permeated the wool and eventually a drop descended. Then another. In 10 minutes we were left with a clear red liquid. Ready for the final step.
Rubedo — Precipitation of DNA by Ethanol
The first three stages of this process have been the solve of the phrase ‘Solve et Coagula’. After isolation of individual cells, lysation of said cells and purifaction to isolate a solution. The breakdown and dissolution of a whole to obtain some higher knowledge. The DNA.
In alchemy Rubedo, the reddening is the final. It corresponds to the Coagula aspect of the phrase. Pure ethanol is gently added to the test tube. The vessel was tilted and a dropper was used to slide the liquid down the side to form a layer on the surface of the red lysate. Once this occurs, the DNA is no longer able to remain in solution. It precipitates and coalesces to form a mucosal substance, much like ectoplasm left by the spirit which has passed through the process of purification. Here in the tube we are left with the prima materia of life.
A cocktail stick was used to remove the DNA for analysis. We are left with something resembling a miniature cotton candy.
There we have it. The microcosm is represented in the macrocosm. The practical was a rousing success, the action of conducting the experiment in the lab breaths life into arid textbook pages. Experimentation allows the students to transmit knowledge from higher worlds into the sphere of Malkuth. It was a pretty messy affair, and though some made mistakes, by the time the bell rung everybody was successful. In fact, not only did they succeed, but they exceeded my expectations.
Many thanks to my cohort of students who, though a little unruly at first, continue to act in the lab with Common Sense, Propriety and Honour.
While I have put forth an alchemical interpretation of the process of extraction of strawberry DNA here, my example can be applied to any organism. And whilst I believe my take on the matter to be pretty convincing I’m not going to pretend that I don’t believe that it’s Not the Only eXplanation.
[Extra-credit to the student who spots the glaring intentional error in my essay. This is education and the role of the teacher is not to feed you facts and trivia; but to provide you with the skills necessary to learn.]