NIST has seven joint research organizations, each of which is a unique and enduring relationship with one or more federal partners, universities, or companies. These joint research organizations address areas as varied as the management of X-ray beamlines, the solution of cybersecurity challenges, or, in the following case, the storage and analysis of biological tissue samples from mammals, birds and fish, and the detection of environmental contaminants.
Dedicated on Dec. 21, 2000, the 9,600-square-meter (103,000-square-foot) Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML) sits on an 8-acre piece of land overlooking Charleston Harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. It is part of a larger complex of facilities on the 78-acre Fort Johnson campus of the South Carolina Marine Resources Center. The HML is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is administered by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. It houses staff from NOAA, NIST, the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
About 25 of the HML’s 125-150 personnel are NISTers.
While each of the partner organizations attends to its own projects, the partners all contribute to the HML’s joint mission to “provide science and biotechnology applications to sustain, protect, and restore coastal ecosystems, with emphasis on links between environmental condition and the health of marine organisms and humans.”
NIST’s part of this mission consists of developing standards and procedures for collecting, processing and storing biological specimens. This involves developing ever more sensitive analytical methods for detecting natural and synthetic chemicals and detecting important biological compounds such as proteins and hormones in matrices as diverse as soil and whale blubber. NIST’s work also involves creating cryogenic reference materials for detecting or measuring a wide variety of chemical properties in biological and non-biological tissues.
Often called “NIST Charleston,” NIST’s presence at the HML includes five groups from the Material Measurement Laboratory’s Chemical Sciences Division: the entire Biospecimen Science Group and most of the Biochemical and Exposure Science Group (which also has staff in Hawaii and Gaithersburg), three (and soon to be four) members of the Inorganic Chemical Metrology Group, two members of the Organic Chemical Metrology Group, and one member of the Chemical Informatics Group.
You could have gotten most of that from the website, but here are some things about NIST Charleston that might be lesser known:
It’s just down the road from where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Fort Johnson sits on the banks of Charleston Harbor about 500 meters north of the lab, looking out on Fort Sumter, which is situated on an island. This made Fort Johnson one of several coastal sites from which Confederate forces aimed cannons and mortars at Fort Sumter. On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers fired the first salvo of the war at Fort Sumter from Fort Johnson's east battery of mortars.
It preserves frozen samples dating back more than 40 years. The NIST Biorepository at HML holds the legacy projects of the National Biomonitoring Specimen Bank. That collection of biological and environmental specimens, including human liver tissue, was established in 1979 as part of a NIST and Environmental Protection Agency project to determine the feasibility of long-term storage of environmental samples. Originally housed for 31 years in the NIST Center for Neutron Research building in Gaithersburg, that collection was folded into NIST’s Marine Environmental Specimen Bank at the HML in 2010, which was in turn renamed the NIST Biorepository. NIST doesn’t collect samples of human tissue anymore, but some of the legacy liver tissues — which for more than 40 years have been kept in liquid nitrogen vapor-phase freezers at temperatures between minus 150 degrees C (minus 238 degrees F) and minus 190 degrees C (minus 310 degrees F) — are seeing new life as Standard Reference Materials. Those particular SRMs are used in the study of proteins and metabolomics (the study of biological substances produced during metabolism). You never know when something might come in handy!
Its staff practice what they preach when it comes to collecting biospecimens. NIST HML researchers developed standard protocols for collecting and maintaining biospecimens for long-term archival and laboratory use that guide people at the HML and all around the world. HML NISTers also go out with their collaborators/stakeholders to process samples in the field, ensure their purity and proper codification, and ensure that each sample has been continuously and accurately accounted for. Some of the missions they’ve been on include collecting samples in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, extracting tissue from beached marine mammals, and collecting tiny tissue samples from live marine mammals to assess their health.
They live in fear of goo. The NIST Charleston crew have one of the largest liquid-nitrogen-cooled milling machines in the country. They can turn just about any biological substance into a powder more fine and far colder than freshly fallen Alpine snow. But you’ve got to be careful to maintain the low temperature of the biological materials when milling or they will thaw and turn into a sticky goo. This can be especially difficult to prevent when milling 50 kilograms of material at once, where one misstep in the team’s coordinated dance can ruin the entire batch.
The lab is rumored to be haunted. The HML has mysterious IT issues that crop up with suspicious regularity. These and other minor annoyances have led some to say that the ghosts of Confederate soldiers are showing their displeasure at the area being occupied by federal employees. While mechanical failures are rare, they did have a leak from a liquid nitrogen pipe that brought the team scrambling to the lab at 9 p.m. one night right around Halloween 2020. Upon arriving, they encountered a creeping fog created by the ultracold nitrogen inside and surrounding the building, which some of the team found mildly unnerving.
NIST Charleston provides specialized services. Need organic material to be milled at cryogenic temperatures into an ultrafine powder? Want some advice on sample collection, preparation and preservation? Need help with using nuclear magnetic resonance to study the structure of proteins and the substances produced during metabolism? NIST Charleston can help.
The site is vulnerable to hurricanes, but they have a plan. While the big one hasn’t hit yet, the HML is precariously placed, being on the outer rim of Charleston Harbor, a mere 10-minute boat ride to open ocean. The building’s first floor is elevated about 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the ground, and the ground is another 3 meters (9.8 feet) above sea level. While they have had some flooding from storm surges, no instrumentation has been damaged. They once lost power for an extended period of time when their backup generators didn’t start; that could have affected some of the samples they keep in electronic upright freezers operating at dry-ice temperatures around minus 80 degrees C (minus 112 degrees F), but the facility’s liquid-nitrogen-cooled freezers can maintain temps of minus 150 degrees C (minus 238 degrees F) for over two weeks without power or additional coolant. The team spends a lot of time preparing for the worst.
The researchers develop reference materials for detecting all sorts of nasty stuff. NIST Charleston plays an outsized role in monitoring our food, water, and environment to make them as free of these contaminants as possible. It’s where the standards for detecting cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and lead are developed, and associated standard reference materials are measured. Researchers also create standards for testing groundwater to detect the presence of fracking chemicals.
The area is home to a plethora of wildlife. Just as NIST Gaithersburg has its deer, geese, foxes, and the very occasional bear, and NIST Boulder has bears, deer, elk and mountain lions, NIST Charleston has its share of wildlife, including foxes, osprey and many other water birds. Notably, when construction was being done at the lab in 2002, an alligator made an adjacent pond its home. Things with Fritz, as the alligator came to be named, were fine for a while, but when the construction workers made the mistake of feeding the animal, it became a little too familiar with people and had to be relocated.