The Top Ten: Biobanking Marine Mammal Samples on the Open Seas

January 1st, 2015 in Biorepository Profile
By Amanda J. Moors, National Institute of Standards and Technology

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 editon of the ISBER News. To help inaugurate the ISBER News Blog, we are reposting our ten favorite articles from the past couple years. What better way to start our top ten list than with Amanda’s?Rick Michels, Editor

In 1989, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources (NMFS/OPR), in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) began the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank (NMMTB) for long-term cryogenic archival of selected marine mammal tissues. In 2002, NIST began partnerships with NMFS/OPR and various research institutions to conduct research on populations of wild marine mammals. Samples collected from health assessments are banked as a part of the NMMTB for long-term storage in liquid nitrogen vapor phase freezers at the Marine Environmental Specimen Bank (Marine ESB) in Charleston, SC. The NIST Charleston facility is located in the Hollings Marine Laboratory at the South Carolina Marine Resources Center.


Specimens banked at the Marine ESB provide an important function in that they allow for retrospective analyses of environmental contaminants. In addition, banked specimens provide a means for future retrospective analyses for new contaminants of emerging concern, provide samples for future analyses with improved analytical techniques, and provide a resource of samples that have been collected and stored in a systematic and well-documented manner for comparing results over time to identify whether environmental trends in contaminant use exist.

To date, over 10,000 samples from several marine mammal species and health assessment locations have been collected and banked at the Marine ESB. Recently, banked health assessment samples have been analyzed for legacy persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated pesticides (i.e., DDT), as well as contaminants of emerging concern such as the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants.

The continued collection of samples over many years will allow for an assessment of temporal trends in contaminant exposure. Additionally, the existence of samples banked prior to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico region provide an excellent reference for assessing contaminant exposure in marine mammals both pre- and post-oil spill.

A systematic well-designed specimen bank program, such as the Marine ESB, is not only a valuable component of real-time monitoring and basic research, but it also enables future investigators to extend their research into the past and provides for future verification of analytical results. Collaborations between NIST, other US government agencies and various research institutions will continue into the future and will provide a traceable record of contaminant exposure and health of marine mammal populations.

Top Ten Things About Biobanking Marine Mammal Samples on the Open Seas

10. Field gear is fashionable… sometimes (i.e., swimsuit vs. drysuit).
9. Even the most seasoned marine mammal researcher can suffer from sea sickness.
8. A day on the open seas is better than a day in the office, except when there are storms! (See photo)
7. Pre-printed barcoded labels, for rough seas, provide an organized inventory of samples.
6. Field work involves sharing close quarters with complete strangers who become your friends!
5. You get to see the sunrise and sunset, often in the same day!
4. Full control of your samples from time of collection to storage in the biorepository.
3. New research collaborations (and friendships!).
2. Banked specimens enable investigators to extend their research into the past.
1. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch!

Biobanking on the Open Seas

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