Darwinian evolution: Bioresearch goes virtual
How fast is technology accelerating? According to the Virginia Biotechnology Research Authority (VBRA), too fast. Since completing its original master plan in 1992 and embarking on an ambitious building program in 1993, the VBRA has seen a tremendous change in the nature of biotechnology research.
"When we started," says Robert T. Skunda, president and CEO of the VBRA, "we planned for a lot of wet lab space, because that's where the research was."
But advancements made by the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Project-coupled with leaps in computer technology in the past decade-have significantly changed the research methodology of the biotech industry. "It's fast becoming a virtual industry," Skunda explains.
Modifying space requirements to meet the changing face of biotechnology research is not simple. According to mechanical and electrical engineers who have worked on laboratory modifications and conversions, it's not a matter of merely changing the laboratory systems furniture into computer workstations.
In addition to modifying the physical layout of the laboratory, considerations must be made for the proper storage or reuse of laboratory chemicals and equipment, the modification of mechanical systems to meet changing air-handling loads, increased communications cabling and electrical wiring and the installation of additional electrical service with back-up power sources.
The changing face of genetic and biotechnological research in no way marks the death of the traditional laboratory, however, but instead reflects a change in the methodological approach of researchers. Theoretical testing, proving of results and technology advancements will still take place in the lab. The changes mainly affect the allocation of space in the initial planning phase.
The evolution of convertible research space demands adaptable floor plans and increased availability of wiring and electrical services. But it also requires funding and community support, which are adding to its virtual nature.
"It may prove true that our biotechnology park becomes virtual, as well, and we reach beyond our present 34-acre facility and into the neighboring counties," Skunda speculates. "We've really become a virtual industry. Biotechnology is truly an international marketplace; many funding sources come from offshore investors."