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NBS Enters a Remarkable Biotechnology Venture

by Jim Schooley, SAA History Committee

Few NIST employees would find it unusual to learn that some of their colleagues work in a Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB).  After all, NIST provides leading research in more areas than most staffers can name.  However, most NIST employees might be surprised to learn that the NIST/CARB researchers spend most of their time in a building only a mile or so from the NIST campus, and that three of these researchers are adjunct professors in the University of Maryland system.     

How this situation developed provides an interesting glimpse into the history of NBS some 25 years ago, and it shows the value of forward-thinking staff members in two prominent scientific organizations.     

"Biotechnology" is a term that can be applied to human enterprises as old as farming, or the brewing of beer. However, modern use of the term dates only from the 1970-1980 period, when the possibility of genetic engineering was realized.  The foundation of CARB dates from that period.     

The two main players in the formation of CARB were Dr. Rita R. Colwell, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Maryland and founder of the Maryland Sea Grant program, and Dr. Donald R. Johnson, an NBS physicist with years of experience in molecular spectroscopy and at that time Director of the NBS National Measurement Laboratory.      

In a recent conversation, Rita Colwell recalled that she accepted the position of Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland in 1983.  Realizing the need for thoughtful scientific leadership in the field of genetic engineering, she suggested that the university should create a task force on Advanced Biotechnology to begin to provide that leadership.  At the same time, NBS was beginning to feel pressure from the chemical industry to produce standards services that could form a basis for their developments in the field of biotechnology.  Planning was initiated to define this new partnership between NBS and the biology industry.      

A happy circumstance brought Colwell and Johnson together.  It happened that both were members of the Maryland High-Tech Council, a group formed to take advantage of the heavy concentration in Maryland of scientists and engineers working in a variety of technical fields.  Through that connection, the two wondered whether they could collaborate in founding a biotechnology institute.  Colwell took as a model the Institute for Advanced Study, founded in Princeton, NJ in1930 through philanthropic donations, which quickly became a powerful force in both the sciences and the humanities.  Johnson thought of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), founded in 1962 through the efforts of NBS researchers Dr. Lewis Branscomb and Dr. Richard Thomas as a joint venture between NBS and the University of Colorado.  It, too, quickly became a world leader in its field.     

Dr. John S. Toll, President of the University of Maryland, and Dr. Ernest Ambler, Director of NBS, quickly provided their support for development of a joint venture between the two organizations.  Colwell and Johnson identified a 50-acre parcel of undeveloped land at the intersection of Shady Grove Road and Maryland Route 28 that had been set aside for "the education of the future generations of Montgomery County residents" by the Isadore M. Gudelski family foundation.  With the cooperation of Montgomery County's Department of Economic Development and Maryland Governor Harry Hughes, they convinced the Gudelski foundation to deed the 50-acre plot to the State of Maryland for use as the Western Campus of the University of Maryland system.  Colwell and Johnson then approached the Montgomery County Council with a request to issue $8 million in municipal bonds to finance the construction of a laboratory research facility to house a "Center for advanced Research in Biotechnology", which would function within the university's Maryland Biotechnology Institute.  A business plan was developed to pay back that loan over a period of 20 years.      

At a series of meetings, Colwell, Johnson, and Toll were joined by Dr. Karl G. Kessler, then director of the NBS Center for Absolute Physical Quantities.  Kessler had helped draft the founding documents for JILA.  It was agreed that a memorandum modeled on the JILA documents would serve well for CARB.  The core staff would consist of members from both the Maryland Biotechnology Institute and NBS, with senior staff members receiving joint appointments from both organizations.      

CARB became a reality in 1984.  While the new building was under construction on the Gudelski site, research was begun in "incubator" space provided by NBS on the third floor of its Physics building.       Following an extensive search, Dr. Kevin Uhlmer, Vice President of Genex Corporation, was selected to be the first director of CARB, with a parallel appointment as a tenured professor at the University of Maryland, but after only a few months in the position he resigned his appointment because of conflicts with his consulting interests.  Prof. Thomas L. Poulos, a 41-year-old biologist on the faculty of the University of Maryland, agreed to serve as director during the first critical years of CARB's development.  Dr. Walter J. Stevens, a 44-year-old computational physicist with 10 years of service at NBS, became the assistant director.  The professional staff of CARB quickly numbered 40 people–scientists from both of the parent organizations, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and visiting scientists.  A Board of Overseers was created to monitor progress in the Center, with Don Johnson named as its chair.      

Initial areas of research for CARB focused on the study of proteins–their crystal structures, both in solids and solutions, modeling of their structures, characterizing their properties, and producing them in quantity.  Quickly the staff began to collaborate with scientists from other government agencies, universities, and biotechnology firms.  Early successes in the CARB research program included determination of the structure of chymosin, a protein composed of over 300 amino acids, which possessed both medical and commercial importance.  It occurs in human blood, where it is involved in the regulation of blood pressure, and in the production of cheese, where it is known as rennin.  This work was accomplished by Gary Gilliland of NIST, Alex Wlodawer of the National Cancer Institute, Joseph Nachman, an Israeli guest worker, and Evon Windborne of the University of Maryland.     

The first building on the Gudelsky Tract was dedicated late in November of 1989.  James Wyngaarden, assistant director of life sciences at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, gave the keynote address, in which he referred to CARB as an important national resource and an outstanding example of collaboration by government, university, and industry.  Raymond Kammer, Acting Director of NBS as Congress changed its name to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, issued an open invitation to the biotechnology community to participate in the work of the Center.  The new building boasted a supercomputer and graphics laboratory, an x-ray crystallography facility, and laboratories for research in molecular biology and biophysical chemistry.  A nuclear magnetic resonance installation was nearing completion.  By 1990, scientists including Keith McKenney and Prasad Reddy of NIST, and Joel Hoskins, Kalidip Choudhury, and Marc Kantorow of the University of Maryland were involved in studying and manipulating DNA gene sequences.      

CARB was off and running.      

Over the last 20 years, CARB has turned into a major research institution for the Washington area.  It has grown in size, with a second building having opened in 1997 and a third in 2006.  At the present time, its program includes research on biomolecular structure and function, as well as the study of biomolecular systems, biometrology, and measurement analysis techniques.  Its research faculty numbers 16, including three NIST employees, Drs. John P. Marino, Arlin Stoltzfus, and Illarion Turik, who hold adjunct appointments on the University of Maryland staff.      

The projects led by the research faculty fall into one of six areas: structural biology, biophysics, genomics and proteomics, nanobiotechnology, pathobiology, and computational biology.  The laboratory facilities at their disposal encourage guest scientists from other laboratories and even from other countries to come to CARB to do research, and administrative changes are currently contemplated to facilitate an increased number of student researchers.      

In addition to their positions on the CARB faculty, Marino and Stoltzfus both are staff members of the NIST Biochemical Science Division, and Turik is on the staff of the NIST Analytical Chemistry Division.  Dr. Laurie Locascio, chief of the Biochemical Science Division, notes that Marino directs one of the six division groups–the macromolecular structure and function group.  He also serves as the current NIST Associate Director of CARB.   Other NIST staff members also collaborate in the work of CARB.  Locascio points out that, besides CARB, a second joint institute, the Hollings Marine Laboratory, connects NIST with NOAA and a consortium of two universities and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to foster research in marine biotechnology.        

All in all, CARB has given a tremendous return on the investment created a quarter century ago by the efforts of Rita Colwell and Don Johnson, a pair of forward-thinking scientists.      

The author acknowledges gratefully the many contributions to this note by Drs. Colwell, Johnson, Marino, and Locascio.

The NBS/NIST Culture of Excellence series is produced under the auspices of the Standards Alumni Association.  The SAA, with offices in the basement of the Administration Building, supports NIST management in a variety of ways, but principally by assistance with historical projects such as oral histories of staff members, biographical files, the Portrait Gallery of outstanding employees, and the museum.  Membership in SAA is open to all present and former employees of NIST.  For information, call 301-975-2486.

Created October 24, 2010, Updated June 7, 2019