Biology Research

Brookhaven has a wide and diverse portfolio of biology research. Below are just a few highlights from the last 60 years along with a glimpse of current research that will chart tomorrow's course.

Tritiated Thymidine

In 1956, Brookhaven researchers discovered a new way to study DNA by attaching the radioisotope tritium to thymidine, one of the building blocks of DNA.

Tritiated thymidine was first used in an investigation of chromosomes, the carriers of double-stranded DNA. In 1957, Brookhaven biologists tested the Watson and Crick model of the molecular structure of DNA by using tritiated thymadine to produce a photographic image of DNA synthesis in plant roots. The results provided the first evidence that Watson and Crick's model of DNA replication operated at the level of individual chromosomes. This experiment also provided the first microscopic identification of "sister chromatid exchange," a cellular phenomenon extensively used to study genetic damage caused by exposure to toxins. Tritiated thymidine also proved useful in studies of cell migration and growth throughout the body. Later studies focused on cell proliferation in various cancers and in the gastrointestinal tract.

Within a few months after this work was presented by Brookhaven researchers at a 1958 meeting, tritiated thymidine was in great demand all over the world. Today, it is used in many different immunological tests and has become a standard for studies in cell proliferation.

UV Light and Cancer

In 1979, Brookhaven biologists conducted experiments in which human skin cells were exposed to several small doses of UV light, rather than one single dose, to mimic what happens to humans who receive multiple, small sunlight exposures. This was the first time human cells were shown to be transformed to a pre-malignant stage by UV exposure. Later experiments by Brookhaven biologist Richard Setlow (above) used backcross hybrids of a species of fish called Xiphophorus to show that malignant melinoma, a deadly skin cancer, could be induced by both UV-A and UV-B sunlight. Previously, it was believed that only UV-B exposure could induce such cancers.

Virus mechanisms

Perhaps someday every species' DNA sequence will be a matter of record. But in 1982, this was far from the case. That's when scientists at Brookhaven finished determining the sequence of the DNA of the virus T7, the longest DNA sequence then known. In all, 39,936 base pairs were counted and identified. The genetic map was correlated with T7's protein production, which led to a detailed understanding of how such viruses control their own replication.

Developing Drugs to Fight SARS

In 2006, Brookhaven scientists set the stage for the rapid identification of compounds to fight against severe acquired respiratory syndrome (SARS), the atypical pneumonia responsible for about 800 deaths worldwide since first recognized in late 2002. Researchers from Brookhaven’s biology department and the National Synchrotron Light Source characterized a component of the virus that will be the target of new anti-SARS virus drugs.

Simulating the Environment of Deep Space Travel

The NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL, above), a $34-million facility, jointly managed during a four-year construction project by the DOE’s Office of Science and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is one of the few places in the world that can simulate the cosmic and solar radiation environment found in space. The facility, opened in 2003, employs beams of heavy ions extracted from Brookhaven’s Booster accelerator, the best in the United States for radiobiology studies. The NASA Space Radiation Laboratory features its own beam line dedicated to radiobiology research, as well as state-of-the-art specimen-preparation areas. Research at NSRL allows scientists to evaluate the possible risks to human beings exposed to space radiation during long-duration missions. In aiming to limit the damage to healthy tissue by ionization, NSRL research may also lead to improvements in cancer radiation treatments.

Biology and Ties to Energy Independence

Using genetic manipulation to modify the activity of a plant Brookhaven biologists have converted an unsaturated oil in the seeds of a temperate plant to the more saturated kind usually found in tropical plants. Conversion of an unsaturated oil to an oil with increased saturated fatty acid levels may not sound like a boon to those conscious about consuming unsaturated fats, but engineered oils could be used to produce feedstocks for industrial processes in place of those currently obtained from petrochemicals. Genetic manipulation could also work in reverse to allow scientists to engineer more heart-healthy food oils.

Did you know?

In 1992, Brookhaven biologists pioneered a new way to decipher DNA structure. They've since decoded the genome of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, which will aid in the search for new vaccines. 

Brookhaven has the world's best facility for exploring the biological effects that radiation might have on astronauts traveling to Mars. (See below,  left.)