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A Perfect Place for Zebrafish
Renovations, New Wing Coming to Bldg. 6, a Former NCI Laboratory

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Big changes are coming soon to staid old Bldg. 6, one of the original campus laboratory buildings, completed in September 1939 (only 7 months after Bldg. 1) as a research facility for the National Cancer Institute. The 7-level-plus-attic red-brick structure, long eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is due to be gutted down to bare concrete and completely renovated by 2005. Its two newer wings, 6A, completed in 1978, and 6B, grafted on in 1990 primarily to house lab animals, will remain largely untouched but will gain a third wing, 6C, now known as the NMR/Zebrafish addition, on its southeast corner. This new low-rise addition — so ground-hugging that its floors have already been designated B1, B2 and B3 — will house perhaps half a million of the species Rerio danio, or zebrafish, who will cavort in thousands of 1- and 2-liter tanks, managed by NICHD and NHGRI. The new wing will also house a massive NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) imaging magnet for studies by scientists from NIDDK, NCI, NHLBI and NIDCR.


The renovations involve multiple institutes and scientific programs, temporary migration to swing space, and a level of complexity — largely due to the special needs of both the magnet and the fish — that tantalizes project officer Jim Lewis of the Design, Construction and Alteration Branch, ORS. A mechanical engineer with 13 years of experience at NIH, Lewis, who recently completed a biosafety level-3 facility at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, is in charge of the multifaceted project, by far his largest yet.

The Bldg. 6C addition will occupy this site on building's east side.

Back in March 1998, NICHD cut the ribbon on a new zebrafish facility in Bldg. 6B. Dozens of scientists and veterinarians hailed the opening of a facility that would enable genetic studies on the fast-breeding fish to take place. It would complement a second zebrafish lab that the institute runs in the Bldg. 14 complex. Trouble is, the 6B fish space came to be coveted by several institutes and centers that badly need space for their rodent populations, Lewis recounted. Bldg. 6B was ideal for this purpose, having been built to satisfy AAALAC accreditation standards for such use.

NICHD, according to Lewis, wanted to consolidate and expand its fish programs in 6B and 14. And NHGRI, which had fish facilities in both Bldgs. 49 and 50, also wanted in on any new aquatic addition to Bldg. 6. So the idea of an NMR/Zebrafish addition (55 percent belonging to NHGRI and 45 percent to NICHD) was conceived back in 2000 to satisfy multiple needs, including a new 900-MHz magnet for a thriving on-campus NMR program.

Meeting Some Unusual Needs

To build a cutting-edge magnet facility, you need a lot of room. Powerful magnets exert such tremendous force that they require shielding; the iron rebar typically used to reinforce concrete is unsuitable in this instance — stainless steel rebar is substituted. Calculating the magnet's force in Gauss units, building designers measure concentric circles representing Gauss values; the 5-Gauss line represents the minimum safe-exposure distance. Therefore the 6C addition has an exterior retaining wall — coinciding with the 5-Gauss line — that blocks pedestrian access to the corner of the building where the magnet is located.

"It's so unique a space," Lewis says. The magnet sits deep within a pit, atop a specially crafted block of concrete designed to be virtually vibration-free. "It would be impossible to put (a magnet) in an existing building without major renovation work," he adds. The magnet will reside on the B2 level of Bldg. 6C and take up only 1,080 square feet of space. Dr. Ad Bax, chief of the biophysical NMR spectroscopy section, is project officer for the magnet purchase. He noted, "The magnet will be used for studying the three-dimensional structure and motional properties of proteins and nucleic acids. The magnetic field strength is the highest commercially available to date, and the field is extremely homogeneous at its center, varying by less than 1/1,000,000,000 over a 0.5 cc volume."

An architect's drawing shows the new Bldg. 6C addition poking out of a hillside on Bldg. 6's southeast side.

The B3, or lowest, level of the addition will house life-support systems for the zebrafish. These consist of six separate water treatment systems, in two groups of three, which provide a steady supply of fresh water to an array, two floors above, of some 17,000 2-liter fish tanks and 8,000 1-liter tanks. Modeled on a similar, but smaller, facility at the University of Oregon, the zebrafish facility required the design advice of two outside aquatics experts, Lewis said.

In order to prevent and isolate disease among the fish, water in the system passes through two filters — a bead filter nabs particulates and a sand-bed filter screens out biological detritus. An ultraviolet-light sterilizer also treats the water, but the goal is not utter sterility; a certain amount of flora is good for the fish.

Despite the high-tech water quality management, the fish still need to be fed manually, Lewis reported; caretakers visit each of the thousands of tanks daily, administering food with medicine droppers. Fish also require carefully adjusted light cycles, which is why there are no windows on their floor. Light is provided artificially, in measured doses. Red lights, such as are used in photographic darkrooms, enable employees to make their way around the facility during hours when the fish are in their "dark" cycle.

A Shell Game with People, Programs

Science can't stop while improvements are made to Bldg. 6, so a complicated pas de deux is planned to accommodate all parties obliged to move. ORS is renovating swing space in Bldgs. 7 and 14A to suit those scientists from 6 who didn't migrate to Bldg. 50 when it opened two summers ago. The occupants of Bldg. 7 also decamped for Bldg. 50, leaving room for newcomers displaced from 6.

Bldg. 6 is occupied mostly by workers belonging to NEI, but there is also a small group from NIAMS, and an NIDDK small-scale biotechnology "pilot plant" unit headed by Dr. Yossi Shiloach. The unit is dealing with the production and purification of biological products from various sources; it has big bioreactors used for producing large quantities of microorganisms and mammalian cells and the needed equipment for recovery and purification. The products made in the facility are used for vaccine development and structural studies. This unit will move to swing space in Bldg. 14A. NICHD, too, has part of the action in Bldg. 6.

Lewis says the construction schedule for Bldg. 6 is currently at 21 months, and is set to start this spring. Most of the employees displaced by the construction work will eventually return to Bldg. 6.

The 6C addition will connect to Bldg. 6A at the B1, or top level, Lewis said. The highest level of the new addition will line up with the B1 level of Bldgs. 6 and 6A. "The addition will sort of poke out from the side of the hill," on the east side of Bldg. 6. Only the B1 level of Bldg. 6A will be affected by renovation; the rest will remain untouched.

This photo of Bldg. 6, taken shortly after it was built, shows what was then a lab facility for NCI.

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