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Innovators in the News
10/3/12 - New Bigelow Lab opens more ocean science possibilities
(Reprint from Mainebiz, 10/1/2012) EAST BOOTHBAY - Ramunas Stepanauskas, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, says he was eager to move to Maine's cooler climate after having spent five years as a postdoc in Georgia and South Carolina. But the Lithuania-born researcher says it was quite another matter to have to run delicate scientific samples in the dead of winter between the rustic — some would say primitive — buildings of the soon-to-be-former Bigelow campus in West Boothbay.
"We were spread between four buildings and had to move samples between them that could be contaminated and that were susceptible to weather," says Stepanauskas, who also is the director of Bigelow's Single Cell Genomics Center. "It wasn't a reliable or efficient way to work. And it's hard to attract candidates to buildings with no heat and no air conditioning. Without new scientists, the organization won't succeed."
But the good news is that the West Boothbay campus buildings, which were leased from the state of Maine for the past 35 years, will be vacated by the end of November, when all staff should be settled in at the new East Boothbay campus, a little more than two years after the groundbreaking.
The genomics center is a key part of Bigelow's strategy to expand its income sources by growing ties with industry, says Mark Bloom, director of corporate alliances and technology transfer, who was hired about a year ago.
"The development of the new campus is a big part of putting together our five-year business plan to map out the lab's development in research, education and technology transfer," he says.
The goal for 2016 is to have technology transfer with industry generate about 30% of Bigelow's operating revenue, an amount that Bloom acknowledges is fairly high compared to the 1% at most other academic institutions. The lab currently gets most of its income from federal research grants. Bloom says the lab needs to enhance and diversify its revenue stream to assure its long-term sustainability.
The five-year plan, already a year under way, also might help offset repercussions from the debt cliff the U.S. government must tackle by Jan. 2, when Republicans and Democrats must agree by law on $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases.
"This is the biggest issue that concerns me," says Bigelow's Executive Director Graham Shimmield. "A compulsory cut won't take money away from Bigelow, but it will increase competition for less federal grant money. And we have a $13 million mortgage."
He says the lab also wants to boost private donor philanthropy, but the top priority is on expanding ties to industry.
"Mark's job is to get close enough to what's happening in a lab or on a bench to be able to talk to industry," he says. "We must build our reputation in the applied [science] area."
The new buildings, spacious and overlooking dense forest, are temperature-controlled and built to meet both modern laboratory and green standards. That should help attract new researchers, Shimmield says, and they, in turn, are expected to bring in more grant money and increase overall revenues to $8-10 million by 2016, up from $5.36 million in 2011. Bigelow currently has 14 senior scientists/principal investigators, but plans are to boost their ranks to 21 within three years. The total staff of 68, including scientists and administrative workers, is expected to grow to about 100 by 2016. Researchers get six weeks of salary per year, and currently raise the rest of their money from research grants.
The campus is built to encourage scientists to interact. There are common tables for informal lunches or meetings at the end of each hall, and researchers can move their offices among the buildings to engage in interdisciplinary work. This will help Bigelow's science evolve, Shimmield says.
"With the new campus, the science hasn't changed, but we can advance it better," says Shimmield, whose large-windowed office overlooks the Damariscotta River. "All microorganism and trace work is better done under clean conditions, plus we now have flowing sea water for our research, and we have more interactions of staff. The genetic work wasn't feasible under the previous conditions."
He notes that in molecular research, it is important to prevent contamination. Likewise, the trace metals lab is made of plastic to prevent contamination from other metals. That was not possible at the old campus, where the buildings were modular structures with no air conditioning and no heating, and where the temperature would soar to 90 degrees in the summer and plunge to just above 0 degrees in the winter.
Even with those shacks, Shimmield says, some of the greatest oceanographers in the world have been through Bigelow.
"We attract people here with our scientific reputation internationally," he says, adding that he hopes the prestige of the new campus will make a huge difference to Maine's standing in the science world. Bigelow already has received accolades, ranking third in the world with its ocean color satellite imaging work as of six years ago. "Less than 10% of Bigelow's work is in the Gulf of Maine; most is worldwide, like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts," he says.
To Stepanauskas, the new campus facilities translate into larger-scale and novel projects.
"The old facility was getting rough for the work I'm doing. I need a facility that is free from DNA contamination," he says. To date, the genome center has been performing subcontracting and fee-for-service work for partners including Pfizer Inc. and Novozymes A/S. He'd like to expand that to more extensive collaborations. "The new facility gives us confidence in the long-term sustainability of Bigelow to attract collaborators," he says.
One area of expansion is in computational analysis, or how to analyze the gene sequences discovered during the genome center's research. Stepanauskas plans to offer that service soon, which he says could double the lab's revenue to about $1 million next year.
Some 99% of the microbes the genome center studies cannot be cultured. The genome center typically will work with drops of sea water, each containing 100,000 bacteria and 1 million viruses. Using the flow cytometry technology it developed, the lab separates each drop into an individual cell, then copies the DNA of that cell, amplifies it to get billions of copies, and then is able to get the genetic sequence of the cell, which is then studied to determine its nature and potential applications.
One use of the technology, says Stepanauskas, is for bioenergy production.
"You may be able to use the genes we're discovering to improve algae, to make it more suitable to industrial applications. For example, by using pigments produced by bacteria you can use light wavelengths to grow algae faster," he says. "And the technology could help polysaccharides convert wood pulp into liquid biofuels, which is a challenge now in terms of speed and efficiency."
He says a lot is unknown about the microorganisms with which he is working — he discovers new organisms all the time — so the discoveries in his lab now probably will not be in practical use for another decade or more.
That type of thinking is good news to Bloom, who says research needs to drive technology transfer. The genomics center is one of five research centers in the Bigelow Center for Blue Biotechnology in Wing 1 of the three-wing campus that have potential for commercial applications. One is the Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota, which he says is the only U.S. collection of bacteria, algae, and viruses, and has more experience with identifying and researching algae than other institutions in the world. The second is the Single Cell Genomics Center, which he says is the only such center in the world focused on marine organisms (the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and Fluidigm Corp. in South San Francisco in May launched a new research center focused on mammalian single-cell genomics).
The third is the J.J. MacIsaac Facility for Aquatic Cytometry, where organisms from the ocean — which he likened to a 3D living soup — are taken and sorted into a single organism, producing a chemical with potential commercial applications such as in pharmaceuticals. The activity is known as bioprospecting.
"Organisms are fighting for their lives 24/7. They have chemical ways to stay alive, to keep predators away, and we can see if these chemicals have commercial application," he explains. "We have the technology to separate the organisms out of the soup with the optical flow cytometry technology we developed. The goal is to have enough DNA to sequence and see if it is commercially viable."
Potential applications are oil from algae for biofuels, cosmetics, antifungals/antibiotics and feedstuffs.
While those three research centers existed at the previous campus, Bloom says it is possible to do a lot more at the new campus with better space, equipment and air handling.
The fourth research center, in Wing 2, is geomicrobiology, which includes iron-oxidizing bacteria that can be studied to prevent bioerosion of ships, or to be used as bioremediators or cleaners of radioactive materials, or to be used as filters. The final area, in the same wing, is deep biosphere studies of organisms on the bottom of the ocean and below the crust of the Earth. Those organisms present an opportunity for bioprospecting because they might be as numerous as organisms in the environment above, he says.
"The first three labs are core service centers, and all five have potential for commercial applications," Bloom says.
Interacting with industry can take a variety of forms. In 1999 Bigelow's flow cytometry technology was spun out into Fluid Imaging Technologies Inc. of Yarmouth, which sells the FlowCAM imaging analyzer instrument. Bigelow also has an agreement with Kennebec River Biosciences Inc. in Richmond to share specialized equipment. Kennebec funds sponsored research, notably in aquaculture vaccine development to prevent sickness in fish, and Bigelow will get royalties from potential sales of the vaccine, he says.
"We need to establish dozens of these relationships," he says.
His aim is to have partner companies locate an operation in Maine to build a local ecosystem. His plans include sponsored fee-for-service agreements, technology outlicensing, and helping entrepreneurial companies. He's also reaching out nationally and internationally. He and three other people from Bigelow recently visited the University of Mississippi to talk to its pharmacy and pharmacognosy (medicines derived from natural sources) programs about possible collaborations.
Says Bloom, "We're trying to capitalize on our academic expertise and to proceed forward with lots of parallel paths."
Writer Lori Valigra can be reached at email@example.com.
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