Classrooms, Teaching Labs Are Open in New Life Sciences Complex

September 3, 2008

Classrooms, Teaching Labs Are Open for Business in Syracuse University’s New Life Sciences Complex

Monday, August 25, 2008

As Syracuse University students moved back to campus last week, a small army of construction workers, faculty, and staff worked feverishly to ensure that teaching laboratories and classrooms in SU’s new Life Sciences Complex would be ready for students. The rest of the building’s future inhabitants-including all manner of life forms, from single-celled organisms to faculty researchers-will move in over the next three months.

The complex will be dedicated on Nov. 7, during a daylong celebration to include a keynote address by J. Craig Venter, a pioneer in decoding the human genome, and other events. Celebration details will be forthcoming and available on the Web at

The 230,000-square-foot Life Sciences Complex, designed by Ellenzweig Associates of Cambridge, Mass., is the largest building project in the University’s history. The complex consolidates classroom and laboratory instructional space for biochemistry, biology and chemistry; for the first time, the entire biology department will be in one building, along with the chemistry department. The complex has two wings in an L- shaped configuration. The research wing houses biology research laboratories, conference rooms and faculty offices. The teaching wing includes biochemistry, biology and chemistry teaching labs, and lecture halls. Large research greenhouses perch like jeweled crowns atop the teaching wing.

Moving vast amounts of delicate scientific equipment and living organisms that are part of ongoing studies to new homes in the Life Sciences Complex will be no easy feat and will require an enormous amount of coordination and timing so as not to disrupt sensitive research activities, according to biology professor Larry Wolf, who is coordinating the move with Department of Biology Chair John Russell. While the yeast, meal worms and fruit flies will most likely easily tolerate their location change, some of the larger organisms-such as Arabidopsis plants and African cichlid and Indian zebrafish-are apt to get stressed out if their moves are not carefully orchestrated.

The Arabidopsis plants, which associate professor of biology Ramesh Raina describes as the “lab rat of the plant world,” are highly sensitive to environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, light and airflow. Before the plants can be moved, Raina and his laboratory team will need to ensure that conditions in the new plant- growing rooms and greenhouses are suitable for Arabidopsis. To do that, they will grow test plants in the new facilities before the experimental plants are moved.

“We use Arabidopsis to understand how plants sense and respond to environmental stresses, particularly pathogens,” Raina says. “At any given time, we are growing several hundred plants, some of which took us several years and a lot of effort to create and are precious for our research.”

Once the conditions are deemed suitable in the new growing rooms, half of the plants will be relocated from the Biology Research Laboratory to the Life Sciences Complex. The remaining plants will be moved after it is determined that the first group has properly settled in. Even then, several plants will remain in the old building for seed harvest before all can be moved to the new building.

“Although we are excited about the new facility, we are nervous about ensuring a smooth transition for our plants to their new home,” Raina says.

Moving fish is even more complex than moving plants. Raised by assistant professor of biology R. Craig Albertson, the cichlids and zebrafish are used to study the genetic basis of biodiversity. Cichlids, it turns out, are a highly diverse family of fish that have evolved extremely rapidly over time. In the wild, the colorful fish grow to about six or eight inches long; in captivity, four inches. Albertson’s fish are the result of more than two years of selective breeding for ongoing genetic mapping experiments. The environment in which they swim is carefully maintained to replicate an African lake. Elaborate filtration systems strip Syracuse city water clean of all minerals and other contaminants. Minerals and salts found in the cichlids’ native environment are added to the purified water before it is pumped into the tanks. About 10 percent of the tank water is changed daily, refreshing the system in much the same way as a gentle rainfall refreshes a lake.

The tiny zebrafish live in a separate filtered environment, which is less elaborate than the cichlids’ environment but no less challenging to move. “The two species represent the dual nature of our research,” Albertson says. “We use the zebrafish to understand how skeletons form and cichlids to learn how skeletons evolve at the molecular level.”

Before the move, the fish will be consolidated into half of the tanks in the research lab and the filtration systems will be turned off. Air hoses will serve as a temporary aeration system until the fish can be moved to their new home. A commercial company will move and rebuild the filtration systems and the empty tanks. When that task is complete, Albertson and his lab team, which includes graduate and undergraduate students, will scoop the fish into old-fashioned, low-tech buckets and move them to the new building. The remaining, now empty, tanks will be moved the following day and the fish will be redistributed accordingly. If all goes well with the bucket brigade, Albertson expects the physical moving of the fish to take six to eight hours. The move is scheduled for mid-September, when the weather is still reasonably warm and the fish are less likely to be shocked by decidedly un-tropical, Syracuse cold air.

“The move will stress the fish,” Albertson says, “however, stress tends to increase spawning activity, which could be a good thing for our experiments.”