Texas Tech University

NSF Grant Extends Life of Genetic Tissue Samples at Texas Tech’s NSRL

bradley speaking Robert D. Bradley, director of the NSRL, speaks at the unveiling of new liquid nitrogen freezers.

Officials at the Natural Science Research Laboratory (NSRL) at the Museum of Texas Tech University recently unveiled five new liquid nitrogen freezers thanks to a $412,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The upgrade ensures the long-term preservation of more than 340,000 current tissue samples in its Genetic Resources Collection, allows for expansion to increase the tissue catalog and prolongs the availability of these samples for scientific research.

"With this upgrade, this facility is able to compete on a global scientific level and provide services for years into the future," said Gary Morgan, executive director of the museum. "We are well on our way now to becoming the premier genetic sample resource center in the world."

wide shot of nitrogen tanks in roomThe new liquid nitrogen tanks can reach up to -190 degrees Celsius, versus the previous mechanical freezers used, which could only reach -80 degrees Celsius.

Robert D. Bradley, director of the NSRL, said work began on the project in June 2015, and freezer installation began this January. The freezers can reach temperatures of – 190 degrees Celsius, and have the ability to increase the size and scope of the collection.

Also, they are more reliable than the mechanical freezers used before, which cost upward of $15,000, only reached -80 degrees Celsius, were prone to mechanical failure and lasted an average of only four years.

"When we started our collection in the old freezers, that was better than any other form of preservation at the time," Bradley said. "But, DNA will degrade even at -80 degrees Celsius. It's slow, but it does break down. RNA and viruses break down even faster. It was the best we could do for a long time. We're moving into freezers -190 degrees Celsius. Much colder temperatures will keep this genetic material viable for research purposes for much longer."

smaller tank for radioactive materialA smaller freezer holds tissue samples collected from Chernobyl's radiation zone, which must be stored separately. 

Four new nitrogen freezers will absorb the bulk of the regular tissue collection formerly stored in 17 mechanical freezers, he said. They also increase current capacity by 30 or 40 percent. A smaller fifth freezer holds tissue samples collected from Chernobyl's radiation zone. For future growth, the museum has room for 5 more nitrogen freezers.

Bradley said tissue collections such as Texas Tech's can serve as major information sources to scientists. For example, during the 1993 hantavirus outbreak in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, mouse tissue samples collected years prior and stored at the NSRL helped scientists understand that the mystery virus had actually been in the region longer than humans had realized, and that different strains of the virus (most far less virulent) existed all over the world.

"In some samples collected not far from Lubbock, we found a different arenavirus that no one had known about 10 years ago, and that was here in our own back yard," Bradley said. "We have a new faculty member starting a whole new series of experiments on the tissue samples collected from Chernobyl 25 years ago. Tissue collections like ours allow scientists answer new questions over time. As new techniques and technology become available, they can use older samples already archived.

"New methods always spark new questions. Twenty years ago, people didn't know about genomics. Today that's the big thing that everyone's talking about. So who knows what we'll be doing 50 years from now."