Parafilm M, the stretchy, endlessly versatile lab-staple wrap composed of paraffin wax and polyolefins, has a special place in the hearts of many chemists. Several C&EN staffers have expressed a desire to replace their kitchen plastic wrap with Parafilm, which has been around since the 1930s and is currently manufactured by Amcor. Fans can purchase an enamel pin on Etsy in the likeness of Parafilm’s delightfully retro packaging. And the jokes Parafilm has spawned seem as infinite as rolls of the stuff are rumored to be.
“There’s just something very funny about having a product that is so iconic and so well known to a very specific niche group of people,” says the man behind the Twitter account @ParafilmM. He describes himself as “some dude who is weird enough to make an account dedicated to making jokes about how awesome Parafilm is.”
But as familiar as Parafilm is to many lab denizens, some mysteries still surround it. For instance, what’s the origin of the M in the product’s full name? That question was answered earlier this month, when @ParafilmM, who for several weeks had a running gag about absurd things the letter could stand for, decided to ruin his own joke and investigate the matter in earnest.
The tenacious tweeter refused to accept that the meaning of the M might be “destined to go unanswered,” as blogger Niko McCarty had surmised in a post about Parafilm history. @ParafilmM unearthed a rubber industry journal from 1937 that described several Parafilm grades, including F, for floral arrangements; G, for horticultural grafting; and C, for cheese packaging. Grade M was originally for mounting “charts, maps, drawings, photos, blueprints, etc., to cloth, paper, wood, metal, and other surfaces” using heat (Parafilm melts at around 65 °C). The M, therefore, likely stands for mounting or maps. By the 1950s, Parafilm M was being marketed for lab use, in addition to “countless uses in the home” such as covering toothbrushes, protecting camera lenses, and adding grip to tool handles.
Despite a confirmed historical connection between Parafilm and cheese, however, this Newscriptster feels obligated to remind readers that jokes about eating Parafilm, known in certain circles as “the forbidden lab cheese,” should not be acted on, as it is unquestionably a safety hazard.
Once a piece of Parafilm has served its purpose in the lab, it’s usually destined for a waste container. But in some labs, that stretchy scrap could join with its brethren to become part of something much bigger—namely, a large sphere.
In fall 2007, when Mikael Garabedian was an undergraduate in Eishi Noguchi’s lab at Drexel University, he started balling up the Parafilm he was using to secure the tops on petri dishes that he used to culture yeast cells. By the time he graduated, in 2009, he had a cluster of used wrap the size of a baseball, Garabedian, now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Newscripts.
Future generations of Noguchi lab members kept adding to the ball. It became the youngest lab member’s job to monitor the object’s progress, says lab manager Chiaki Noguchi, though she notes some students have taken the duty more seriously than others over the years.
Now, more than a decade and a half after its spherical start, the ball weighs over 3.2 kg. The lab also started a new ball last year using only purple parafilm. That one, nicknamed Baby Purple, weighs about 3.8 g.
But while the Noguchi lab used to assert that it had the world’s biggest Parafilm ball, the claim has been summarily squashed by Oregon-based DNA sequencing company Plasmidsaurus. Customers sending in samples for sequencing wrap their containers in Parafilm to protect them during transit. Plasmidsaurus cofounder Eric Johnson started balling up that Parafilm last spring as a joke, lab technician Sydney Crews tells Newscripts in an email. As of press time, the lab’s Parafilm ball weighed over 10.0 kg.
Garabedian admits that he’s one of the customers who has contributed to Plasmidsaurus’s dominance in Parafilm balling. “I send them shipments three times a week,” he says.
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This article was updated on March 6, 2023, to correctly name the company that makes Parafilm. It is Amcor, not Bemis Manufacturing Company.