This one is for the true microbiologists, but just for context for anyone else, “LB” is the most common growth medium used for bacterial culture, and is used in nearly all molecular biology labs…
My buddy Eric invited me to give a talk at the University of Florida last week; UF is in Gainesville, which is a surreal place, as far from a beach as you can get in Florida, in the middle of the dense nearly tropical forest. There are wild alligators and snakes on campus, and Spanish moss drapes the trees. The day after my talk we went to another talk at the Veterinary school about the evolution of pathogenic bacteria in your gut during infection; one of the questions at the end was by an old professor who would make a good Santa Claus, except maybe a little too short, but with long white hair and beard.
Eric: “Do you know who that is?”
“That’s Roy Curtiss. He’s apparently pretty famous, a member of the National Academy (of Sciences).”
Through a twist of fate that I won’t go into, that night I ended up at dinner with Roy and a few other professors, including Roy’s wife Josie. Roy sat next to me and was mostly quiet as he focused down on his soup and pasta, while Josie, who is an adorably bubbly little midwesterner, sat up straight across the table from him and smiled. Roy wore a blazer with a chicken pin – it turns out much of his research had to do with chickens, like, how to keep your chickens from getting infections I guess. He had a something of a journeyman career, originally from New York, studied at Cornell, and then moving from Washington University as a professor, to University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he built the premier medical center in the south, and then on to the University of Arizona and Florida. He was from the second great wave of molecular microbiologists (succeeding the original Phage Group, all of whom he knew), who built many of the molecular tools that we still use today in molecular biology, and after he ate and had a couple glasses of wine he told stories about the glory days, which indeed, were incredible times in biology.
Near the end of the dinner the table was indulging in conversation about strain collections – a microbiologist may collect tens of thousands of bacterial strains, that they either isolated or constructed, during the course of his or her career. Most of them are going to be strains of E. coli, which is the workhorse of molecular microbiology and is where most genetic engineering is done. E. coli grows in LB media.
Roy: “By the way, do you know what LB stands for?”.
Most scientists think LB stands for “Luria Broth” or Luria-Bertani Broth,” because Giuseppe Bertani created the formulation when he was in Salvador Luria’s Lab at the University of Indiana (Luria won the Nobel Prize for reserach into bacteriophage (i.e. a bacteria virus) replication). But if you know better, you know that Luria was trying to steal credit from Bertani by appending his name to it, and that Bertani himself meant LB to stand for “Lysogeny Broth” because he was studying lysogeny (where a virus integrates its DNA into the bacterial chromosome) when he formulated it. So we all smugly laughed around the table and said “Yeah! Lysogeny Broth, but most people think its blah blah blah…” But Roy huffed:
Apparently Liz Bertani, Giuseppe’s wife, was a technician in Luria’s lab, and she, not Giuseppe, had formulated LB, and used her initials to name it (as we do with many things in microbiology). In the end, Luria had stolen the credit from Giuseppe, who had stolen it from Liz. LB.