Author: Dr. Zisis Kozlakidis Head Laboratory Support, Biobanking, and Services International Agency For Research on Cancer/WHO
Continuous release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leads to a rise in the earth’s temperature, resulting in frequent and severe extreme weather conditions worldwide. This gradual change in the climate has a direct and indirect impact on various aspects of life, including food production, water access, and the emergence of diseases. There is an urgent need for decarbonization, and calls for decarbonization have become increasingly prominent. Global movements are also urging biobanks to explore decarbonization as an area of research because biobanking is considered a fundamental, yet energy-intensive research infrastructure in healthcare.
Biobanking and the Missing Dialogue on Environmental Impact
Human biobanks hold significant promise for researchers as they eliminate the need for researchers to invest time and resources in collecting, storing, and curating samples and data. By pooling together large-scale data sets, commonly referred to as “big data,” researchers can address important questions related to national and global health.
However, despite being promoted as a public good, discussions surrounding the governance of biobanks are still lacking when it comes to addressing their environmental impact. The concept of sustainability has not been adequately applied to environmental concerns. This is a concerning gap because biobanks have a significant environmental impact that should be considered in discussions surrounding their governance and sustainability.
Challenges in Reducing Carbon Emissions
The storage and management of biosamples in biobanks can have negative effects on the environment, primarily due to the continuous energy consumption needed to run low-temperature storage freezers. In addition, the freezers may require specialized temperature-controlled rooms, and need to be replaced periodically.
The primary challenge in achieving decarbonization in biobanking is reducing energy consumption, as most biobanks use ultra-low temperature freezers. Another energy-intensive aspect of biobanking is the use of liquid nitrogen (LN2) for the long-term storage of biological substances. LN2 provides a stable ultralow-temperature environment. However, there is limited information available regarding the cost and consumption of LN2 or the cost of electricity consumption over the lifetime of an ultra-low temperature freezer. This data must be gathered for benchmarking, planning, implementing, and measuring decarbonization efforts in biobanking.
Lower and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) have fewer biobanks with less advanced resources than High-Income Countries (HICs), and a different set of challenges. Unlike HICs where the decarbonization dialogue does exist in theory, LMICs have not confronted the imperative due to the additional financial costs it may require. Currently, cost is the main factor for LMIC biobanks, leading to the preference for low-cost freezers that consume more electricity and emit more heat. Investing in high-quality deep freezers for decarbonization is difficult for LMIC biobanks to afford, even if the urgency of decarbonization is recognized. Additionally, electrical and LN2 supply is not consistent in LMICs, making it challenging to estimate energy consumption accurately.
HICs can afford to adopt new technologies that are more energy and LN2-efficient. These technologies can be and must be tested and eventually scaled up within existing biobanking facilities and networks. HICs must also devise techniques that allow the storage of greater numbers of substances at room temperature, thus reducing the heating and/or cooling needs for equipment.
Since LMIC biobanks cannot afford to decarbonize by investing in the latest technology and equipment, they can achieve decarbonization by using existing equipment and facilities in innovative ways, and introducing behavioral and operational changes. One way to implement behavioral changes in LMIC biobanks is to adopt a just-in-time model, which involves reducing the number of samples stored for long-term. Instead, LMIC biobanks can focus on serving prospective collections and short-term storage by actively communicating their needs with stakeholders. An operational change example could be, coordinating with operating theaters to collect tissues while minimizing the need for processing and transportation. Other measures biobanks in LMICs could adopt include using efficient office lighting, optimizing heating and air conditioning, promoting paperless culture in the biobank, incorporating an energy star rating as a criterion in purchasing equipment, so that manufacturers take that aspect into consideration for the design of future equipment, and more.
How Can a Biospecimen Management Software Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Biobanks?
A powerful tool that can help biobanks reduce their carbon footprint and make their operations more sustainable is a biospecimen management software, also known as Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). One of the key benefits of a biospecimen management software is its ability to eliminate paper-based records and documentation. This means less paper and printing, which translates to a smaller carbon footprint associated with paper production, transportation, and disposal. By embracing digital documentation and a biospecimen management software, biobanks can not only reduce their environmental impact but also streamline their record-keeping and improve data accuracy.
Urgent and significant steps toward understanding the energy consumption of biobanks and their decarbonization prospects are crucial as biobanks may have significant environmental impacts. In HICs, although biobanks are considered large consumers of energy and LN2, the discussion around decarbonization is currently at a theoretical level. The biobanking literature has called for action toward decarbonization, but this has not translated into specific activities or calls. Overall, decarbonization efforts are more developed in HICs than in LMICs, where equipment replacement solutions are unaffordable. CO2 reduction in such biobanks can be achieved not only through a reduction in energy consumed by equipment but also by using noncryogenic preservation techniques that allow molecular analytes to remain stable at room temperature for longer. Increasing the overall utilization rate of collected samples can also indirectly make biobanking greener. A biospecimen management software helps reduce the carbon footprint of biobanks by digitizing their operations and by eliminating the use of paper notebooks.
Where authors are identified as personnel of the International Agency for Research on Cancer/WHO, the authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this article and they do not necessarily represent the decisions, policy, or views of the International Agency for Research on Cancer/WHO.