Building a Greener Future: Biobank Information Management Systems as Catalysts for Environmental Sustainability
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In the quest for a sustainable future, the urgency for decarbonization has extended its reach to various industries, including biobanking. As global movements emphasize the importance of reducing carbon emissions, the energy-intensive nature of biobanks is coming under scrutiny. However, in the biobanking world, there is a notable absence of discourse regarding the governance of biobanks in relation to their environmental footprint.
The significant environmental impact of biobanking
Biobanks exert an environmental impact through various channels. This impact stems from the equipment utilized in sample storage, as well as the energy consumption associated with biobanking operations. For instance, the use of ultra-low temperature freezers, which are crucial for housing biosamples, necessitates a substantial amount of energy (with greater energy requirements for lower temperatures). Moreover, these freezers need to be housed in temperature-controlled rooms, adding to the energy demands, and they must be replaced periodically to maintain efficiency, resulting in waste disposal.
The absence of environmental impact discussions in biobanking
Over the past few decades, there has been an exponential increase in the storage needs of biobanks, thanks to ever-growing demand. However, the concept of sustainability as it applies to biobanks has not expanded to include environmental considerations. According to a 2022 study by Taylor & Francis Group, there is limited awareness regarding these issues among people who have a stake in these discussions, such as researchers utilizing biobank resources and digital sustainability experts. Additionally, environmental sustainability policies within biobanks are practically non-existent. The absence of policies and discussions exists despite biobanks being a public good, allowing researchers access to biobanking resources, and often receiving public funding. This gap is disconcerting since biobanks have a substantial ecological impact that necessitates careful consideration within discussions about their governance and overall sustainability.
The need of the hour
Similar to other sectors within the healthcare industry, there is an ethical responsibility for biobanks to acknowledge and address their adverse environmental effects. This entails various considerations, such as the ability to measure the environmental impacts of biobanking, including carbon emissions from different storage and analysis practices, effects on biodiversity and mineral extraction and water consumption associated with materials used. These considerations must be ethically balanced with other factors, such as health benefits. Currently, these considerations have received limited attention, and our understanding of the precise environmental impacts of biobanking, how to assess them and which metrics and standards to employ is lacking. The extent to which biobanks and researchers are addressing these issues in their research remains unknown.
Opportunities for decarbonization
While the vital dialogue on decarbonization and environmental sustainability expands, there are some practices that must be put into action urgently. These actions will differ between high-income countries (HICs) and low and middle-income countries (LMICs).
HICs have a higher concentration of biobanks per country, possess better-equipped facilities and have the financial capability to embrace and implement energy-efficient technologies. It is crucial to explore and evaluate these energy-efficient options within existing biobanking facilities and networks, with the intention of eventually expanding their adoption. HICs also need to develop strategies that enable the storage of larger quantities of substances at ambient temperature, thereby minimizing the requirements for equipment heating or cooling.
Due to financial constraints, biobanks in LMICs are unable to achieve decarbonization by investing in advanced technology and equipment. However, they can still work towards decarbonization by leveraging their existing resources and implementing creative approaches. Behavioral and operational changes can be introduced to optimize efficiency; for instance, adopting a just-in-time model can help reduce the volume of long-term sample storage, allowing LMIC biobanks to prioritize prospective collections and short-term storage while actively engaging stakeholders to meet their specific requirements.
LMIC biobanks can also consider implementing various additional measures. These may involve utilizing energy-efficient office lighting, optimizing heating and air conditioning systems and fostering a paperless culture within the biobank. Additionally, the incorporation of an energy star rating as a purchasing criterion for equipment could encourage manufacturers to consider energy efficiency in the design of future equipment, leading to more sustainable options.
Figure 1: Strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of biobanks. Credit: CloudLIMS.
Leveraging a Biobank Information Management System to reduce carbon footprint
Another effective solution that can assist biobanks in mitigating their environmental impact and enhancing sustainability is the implementation of a Biobank Information Management System (BIMS), also known as a biobanking LIMS. A BIMS offers significant advantages, including the elimination of paper-based records and documentation. This transition to digital documentation decreases reliance on paper, thereby reducing the carbon footprint associated with paper production, transportation and disposal. Furthermore, it is crucial to use a BIMS that utilizes the public cloud, such as AWS or Google Cloud, as it allows sharing of resources among multiple tenants, maximizing real-time collaboration and reducing individual carbon footprints. On the other hand, BIMS solutions relying on private cloud servers should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, as they tend to consume more resources and power and hence have a higher environmental impact. Informed decisions about the cloud infrastructure can help biobanks align their data management practices with sustainability goals and contribute to a greener future.
By adopting a BIMS and embracing digital record-keeping methods, biobanks can not only minimize their environmental impact but also optimize their data management processes, leading to improved data accuracy and streamlined operations.
Figure 2: A BIMS to digitally manage samples and associated metadata. Credit: CloudLIMS.
The urgency for decarbonization in biobanking cannot be overstated. The environmental impact of biobanks is significant and demands immediate attention. It is crucial for biobanks to actively address their negative environmental effects and strive for sustainability. This requires a shift in mindset and the adoption of innovative strategies. For instance, LMICs’ ingenuity in adopting energy-friendly measures – such as optimized heating, air-conditioning and lighting – and using a BIMS can go a long way in reducing ecological footprint.
It is crucial to incorporate the topic of environmental sustainability into the currently overlooked discourse surrounding biobanks and their governance. By recognizing the environmental impact of biobanks and addressing it proactively, researchers and sustainability experts can create a sense of urgency to initiate conversations and take action to build a more sustainable future. It is time to not only talk but also walk the sustainability talk and ensure that biobanking practices align with the collective responsibility to protect the environment.
About the author:
Montserrat Valdes is a highly skilled chemical engineer with a diverse background in research and industry. She holds a Master of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan and an Analytical Chemistry Diploma from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Currently, Montserrat is working with CloudLIMS.com as a senior scientist.
In addition to her work as a chemist, Montserrat has also served as a research engineer, successfully coordinating various environmental projects of great importance. These projects include the simultaneous capture of NH3 and H2S using nanoparticles, the biodegradation of surrogate naphthenic acids, and the adsorptive removal of antibiotics from livestock waste streams.
Montserrat has also made significant contributions to scientific literature through her research articles and conference presentations. Her publications in journals such as the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering and Bioprocess and Biosystems Engineering highlight her expertise in topics ranging from nanotechnology applications to biodegradation and wastewater treatment.