In 1963, a comprehensive, long-range program dealing with the sources and biological effects of human-made radiation was established by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Livermore. Recognizing the growing need for a bioenvironmental presence at the Nevada and Pacific test sites, the AEC established the Livermore effort, headed by distinguished University of California, Berkeley professor John Gofman, as an integral part of its overall Biomedical Research Program. In announcing the formation of the new biomedical program, the AEC stated that it had “long recognized the need for a central group, which would plan and conduct studies of environmental contamination due to release of radioactivity from nuclear detonations conducted for peaceful or military purposes.”
The Livermore Laboratory was the natural choice for the location of the new program due to the presence of “scientists knowledgeable in the ways man-made radiation is generated and released,” and the “concentration of pertinent facilities.” In 1963, a nucleus of nine senior scientists and 30 support personnel began operations at Livermore, setting up temporary shop in an old barracks left standing from the days of the Naval Air Station before moving into more spacious accommodations.
Along with this core group of Livermore employees came an assortment of cattle, sheep, peccaries and two rare pygmy goats, borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo. This initial cadre of animals, and others to follow, were central to the study of the physical and chemical properties of radionuclides and how living organisms store and potentially pass them through the food chain. In 1964, Livermore’s Biomedical Group initiated a long-range program on the fate of radionuclides in bovine metabolism to examine the sources and biological effects of human-made radiation. As part of this study, the group maintained a small herd of Holstein cattle at the Lab’s “Bovinatron” cow barn, where a young calf named “Elmer” was the first of many born.
In the early 1970s, while research on radioactive isotopes continued, Livermore biologists began to expand the scope of their work by looking into the chemical effects of energy-related pollutants. A few years later, when the Energy Research and Development Administration, responsible for the nation’s non-nuclear and nuclear energy programs, replaced the AEC, the Lab’s Biomedical and Environmental Research Program continued to broaden their focus by measuring the effects of a multitude of environmental pollutants on human health. In 1972, a few years after Gofman’s departure and return to academia, the Lab recruited Mort Mendelsohn to head the Biomedical Program. Over the next two decades, Mendelsohn built biomed into a nationally recognized center in several bioscience disciplines and oversaw its emergence as one of the founders of the Human Genome Project.
That same year, 1972, Livermore began groundbreaking work in flow cytometry, a technique for separating specific cells from other cells. Within a year, researchers had a high-speed cell sorter in operation that not only analyzed cells but could automatically sort them according to size and chemical content. In 1974, Livermore scientists became the first to use flow cytometry to separate chromosomes; and, by the end of the decade, researchers could sort human chromosomes, which are small and varied.
Building on its original 1963 charter to study the human health consequences of environmental radiation exposure, Livermore scientists in the early 1980s were exploring how radiation and chemicals interacted with human genetic material, mutating DNA and leading to cancers and other adverse health effects. LLNL’s experiments to study repair of DNA damaged by radiation focused on chromosome 19. Capabilities in flow cytometry developed by the Lab, combined with worldwide developments in recombinant DNA technology, led to a joint Livermore–Los Alamos project to build human chromosome-specific gene libraries.
A few years later, in 1987, advanced chromosome-sorting technology developed at Livermore and Los Alamos provided the basis for the Department of Energy (DOE) to launch its Human Genome Initiative. In 1990, DOE joined with the National Institutes of Health and other international laboratories to initiate the Human Genome Project to sequence all 3 billion base pairs (23 chromosomes) of human DNA. Livermore was a major player among a dozen national and international laboratories in what became the world’s largest biological research effort. In 2001, several years ahead of schedule, a rough-draft sequence of all 23 chromosomes was completed, with Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Los Alamos combining efforts in DOE’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California to sequence chromosomes 5, 16 and 19.
In the 1990s, research efforts began to focus on emerging concerns about bioterrorism as a threat to international security. Livermore scientists took the initiative and began to develop advanced microtechnologies to improve detection systems for biological and chemical agents. For the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, LLNL and Los Alamos deployed a biological agent detection system called Biological Aerosol Sentry and Information System (BASIS), which provided the ability to detect a bioagent release in less than a day. Based on detector technology and DNA analysis procedures developed at LLNL, BASIS evolved into BioWatch, now deployed in cities throughout the nation.
In 2011, LLNL’s expertise in bioinformatics and high-performance computing, along with a biotechnology advance, led to the development of the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array, a tool for rapid detection of bacteria, viruses and other organisms. Today, LLNL is continuing to help keep the world safe from evolving biological threats by advancing technology in detection, characterization and mitigation.
Pictured: A photo from 1970 showing Marvin Van Dilla working with flow cytometry.