The Little Known World Of Biological Storage & Why It's Important

Let's face it, biological storage isn't something most of us think about every day, or even every year. But behind the scenes, in laboratories all across the country, the storage of biological samples is becoming increasingly critical to research into the underpinnings of medical and biological sciences.

It's Not Just a Brain in a Jar Anymore

Tissue storage has come a long way since the days of creepy things floating in jars of formaldehyde. Methods are as varied as the reasons for collecting and keeping life form samples. Biologists preserve tissues from:
  • Field samples for DNA identification;
  • Donors for storage and transplantation;
  • Plants and animals for species or cell line preservation;
  • Research subjects for experimentation and data gathering;
The life sciences are vibrant with activity, much of it involving the need for long-term preservation of tissue samples. Scientists have perfected several preservation methods specific to particular needs and lengths of storage, including:
  • Desiccation;
  • Fluid preservation;
  • Refrigeration;
  • Freezing.

What Does It Matter Anyway?

Medical science progresses daily, so much rides on the preservation of biological specimens. Umbilical cord blood is routinely banked to preserve precious fetal stem cells for use in developing treatments for deadly diseases later in life. Loss of that cord blood could literally be a death sentence. Cloning and other reproductive technologies mean that there's a chance extinct plants and animals can be brought to life in modern times, but only if their DNA is properly preserved. If the preservation fails, that creature or plant may be lost forever. Proper storage is critical for donor tissues. Blood, corneas, and other body parts give the ill and injured restored health and function, thanks to the generosity of those who have passed on. Those gifts deserve the best treatment possible so that they can change lives. Biological research is a painstaking, long-term endeavor which gleans results over years and even decades. Many experiments cannot be recreated or restarted after a hiatus, and cannot endure the loss of their experimental samples. Poor preservation can set research back decades.

Loss of Data: Loss of Faith

Plant and animal tissues are important but don't carry the moral and ethical weight that donated human tissue does. Even more important than the potential of lost time and data is the breach of faith with those who have been generous in a time of grief and pain. Donation of a loved one's remains is an act of faith that that sacrifice will give meaning to their loss. It is part of a pact between the donors and the researchers. Donors trust that their loved one's remains will be treated with care and respect and as the valuable resources they are. Researchers have the obligation to provide that environment. Failure in care – that is, failure of the storage environment – can be tragic. A 2012 freezer malfunction at a hospital affiliated with Harvard's Brain Tissue Resource Center destroyed one-third of their autistic brain collection, built with difficulty over the past decade. In addition to lost data, the center's long effort to persuade relatives of autistic persons to donate their brains may be irreparably harmed by this perceived breach of faith.

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