Dry out, put away

The freezer meltdown was a huge disaster for Judy Muller-Cohn. One night in 1997, she lost millions of dollars’ worth of crucial DNA and protein samples. But this major meltdown at Mycogen Corporation, an agriculture and biotechnology company based in San Diego, ultimately had a happy ending for Muller-Cohn.

“My husband and I knew that sample management was a major issue,” says Muller-Cohn. Her husband, Rolf Muller, had also been complaining about the issue in his lab at Digital Gene Technologies, a genomics and pharmaceutical research company that was generating thousands of samples each week and spending millions of dollars to store and organize them.

Research institutions often have warehouses full of large, expensive freezers that, at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius, use lots of energy and are expensive to maintain. Plus there’s the problem of freezer malfunctions, which can happen up to...

While on a skiing vacation, the couple were discussing the recent lab disaster when it struck them—the solution to sample storage already existed in nature. Certain invertebrates such as brine shrimp have developed a natural biological mechanism that allows them to survive for over a decade at room temperature. The mechanism is called “anhydrobiosis” or “life without water.” While in this dried-out state, DNA, RNA, proteins, membranes, and cellular systems are protected and can be revived at any time simply by rehydrating.

“We knew this biology existed,” says Muller-Cohn. “We wanted to see if we could mimic the chemistry in a way that might be amenable to lab research. We went back to the bench together, worked night and day to see if we could develop something novel to use in the lab.”

You just add water, and samples come back to life.

In their spare time, the couple operated out of a friend’s lab at a nearby institution that Muller-Cohn declined to name, and developed special chemical matrices for stabilizing DNA. Muller-Cohn had left Mycogen, so she worked in the day, while her husband worked at night. They even shared a lab notebook that they passed back and forth each day.

After working on this technology for several years, the husband and wife team officially launched their company Biomatrica in 2004. They had created a synthetic polymer called SampleMatrix, which—when mixed with DNA, RNA, and proteins—could preserve these samples at room temperature using the principles of anhydrobiosis. SampleMatrix forms a protective coating around a sample to prevent it from degrading, essentially “shrink-wrapping” the extracted DNA or RNA. Samples are air-dried at laboratory room temperature prior to storage; they can be recovered by rehydration and used immediately without purifying. “You just add water and the sample comes back to life.”

Muller-Cohn declines to comment in more detail about the chemistry of her products, but says they have found no signs of degradation so far, and she estimates that this system is 20 times less costly than freezing. This technology is useful for scientists who need to extract and store DNA and RNA from cell culture and lines for genomic or cloning experiments, she says. The company’s newest product is DNAgard, developed for stabilizing DNA in tissues and cells in liquid at room temperature.

“I have heard good things about the products,” says Jay Skeen, vice president of San Diego–based Magellan BioSciences, who has no ties to Biomatrica. “Scientists have been able to successfully retrieve samples, and the product does not appear to be hazardous for the user or the samples.”

So far Biomatrica has helped about 1,000 research institutions and companies, including Johnson & Johnson, the US Navy, the National Institutes of Health, Quest Diagnostics, NASA, and the Salk Institute. “We get calls from people who have problems with their energy bill, organizing their samples, and even those who want to store and ship materials from extreme environments like the middle of a desert,” says Muller-Cohn.

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?