Public Release: 

Sandia pursues biotechnology as new technology focus area

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Sandia National Laboratories is expanding its work in biotechnology - combining traditional inorganic sciences with biology - to push scientific discovery and development into such areas as the creation of new materials and to help in America's war on terrorism.

"The same way computers dominated the past 20 years, biology is going to dominate this new century like nothing else will. How can Sandia not go into biology?" said Bill Camp, Sandia National Laboratories Director of Computers, Computation, Information & Math Center.

Biotechnology - the coming together of traditional inorganic sciences of physics, engineering and chemistry with biology - is making new and complex types of research possible. Sensors, computing, nanoscience, robotics and materials science are all benefiting from the influx of biotech into their worlds, just as the biological sciences are advancing from the new interfaces with the physical and engineering sciences.

The focus at Sandia, a Department of Energy national laboratory, on biotech started about three years ago when Al Romig, Sandia Vice President for Science & Technology and Partnerships, and Mim John, Vice President for the California Laboratory, began advocating that Sandia expand research efforts in the new field. They felt that Sandia could have an even a greater impact on keeping the United States safe by adding biology to the science and technology base at Sandia for nuclear weapons and other purposes.

"I knew as far back as the early 1990s that biotech was going to explode," John says. "It became apparent that if Sandia didn't go into biotech, we were going to be left behind."

Romig adds that Sandia had a "clear mission driver" for pursuing biotech - countering bioterrorism and biowarfare.

"We knew that long before 9/11. And we have a lot of intrinsic strengths that make us a competitive biotech player - sensors, electronics, mathematical algorithms, and computational ability. It only makes sense that we do this."

A second part of the vision, Romig says, is the bio/nano/info interface. "I am very excited about how bio will be a key enabler of nano and lead to new materials and devices," Romig says. "To stay at the cutting edge of nanoscience, materials science and micro/nano devices we MUST invest in bio. I would bet that someday bio-inspired materials and devices will appear in Sandia national security systems and nuclear weapons."

For more than 10 years Sandia has pursued some biotech research. Among the first were an insulin pump and a noninvasive glucose monitor. Others included a bio-cavity laser, prosthetics, decontamination foam and the Rapid Syndrome Validation Project (RSVP). But no concerted effort existed to use this new technology in a big way.

In 1999 John and Romig sponsored a study for the Labs Leadership Team (LLT) - top leaders at Sandia - to determine if Sandia should play a role in the biotech arena and, if so, what areas should be Sandia's focus. Len Napolitano from the California site was tapped to lead the study.

"We spent three months exploring what the role of biotechnology should be in addressing Sandia's current and future national security mission needs," Napolitano says. "We concluded that biotech at Sandia is inescapable. We were obligated. We couldn't avoid it. And (by the way) it was already here."

Among bio-strategy decisions that needed to be made were: What areas of biotechnology should Sandia pursue? Should the application of biotechnology extend beyond defense against biological weapons? To what extent should we commit resources? How do we develop and implement corporately focused strategy?

The report noted that bio was already "part of our current national security missions."

"Many current capabilities were already integrating biotech - materials sciences, computational analysis and simulation, physical diagnostic techniques, microfabrication, technology integration - and we anticipated that future missions will require even more bio capabilities," Napolitano says.

The LLT - having taken a neutral position on biotech earlier in the 1990s, later becoming strong advocates - agreed to establish a biotech focus area working on projects where Sandia could establish its own technical niches.

In 2000 a Biotech Science & Technology Council was created to lead Sandia's efforts to transform the Labs into the biotechnical laboratory of choice for national security problems. Also, three new departments, representing primary research endeavors, were formed to focus on biotech.

In 2001 a biotechnology portfolio was established as part of an internally funded program, called Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, to provide "seed" funding for this new science and technology area. This included the Interfacial Bioscience Grand Challenge (IBIG) that is focused on the development of new bioanalytical tools for the study of membrane protein structure and function.

In addition, there are two other LDRD Grand Challenges that have a significant biological component. One is the Molecular Integrated Microsystems (MIMS) Grand Challenge, which has as one of its goals the combining of molecularly tailored nanomaterials with addressable microdevice architectures to demonstrate the first-ever programmable microsystem devices for protein and peptide analysis.

The second is the Bio-MicroFuel Cell Grand Challenge that will develop new compact power sources that can operate using fuels from biological sources.

Even with the new emphasis on biotech at Sandia, don't expect Sandia to transform its science and technology base in any wholesale way. Biotechnology investment is about 5 percent of Sandia's research budget, which is considered to be a threshold level for developing new competencies. This fiscal year about $21 million of Sandia's $1.7 billion annual budget is devoted to biotech projects. Some $9.8 million of that goes to the three Grand Challenges and nine other LDRD projects.

"We will be working in the 'sweet spots' in physical and bio areas where we have expertise and where there is the greatest need," Romig says. "This will be activities like understanding how bioagents and other pathogens attack and penetrate cell membranes, bioinformatics to 'mine and understand' the emerging explosion of biological data, and computational biology to tie all this understanding together in working models of cells and higher order structures. This will have direct and major impact on our bioterrorisim efforts and will also have important medical spinoffs."

Romig notes that for Sandia to succeed in its biotech endeavors, the Labs will have to partner more with other laboratories, universities, and hospitals. "We can't do this alone," he says. "We are not going to grow a major life sciences program here. We'll have to have interdisciplinary scientists and form lots of partnerships."

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Websites of other releases dealing with Sandia's initiatives in the biotechnology area follow:

• Sandia's biotech initiatives homepage,

• Sandia Interfacial Bioscience Grand Challenge seeks to understand protein

• Molecular Integrated Microsystems grand challenge pursues revolutionary approach to

• Sandia researching new way to power small devices using living biological systems,

• Sandia/UNM researching microarray technology for new ways to diagnose, prevent illnesses

• New Sandia-developed miniaturized lipid biosensor may rapidly detect biological agents

Story and images available at:

Sandia/California Media Relations Contact: Michael Janes, (925), 294-2447,

Sandia National Laboratories' World Wide Web home page is located at

Sandia news releases, news tips, science photo gallery, and periodicals can be found at the News and Events button.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.