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The Environmental Specimen Bank – a time capsule for the future

Crunching sounds break the silence when a steel knife cuts loose the top of a trout´s head, exposing the fish brain. Let´s join a guided tour in the Environmental Specimen Bank in Oslo.

Research assistant Siri Moy treats the trout from lake Mjøsa carefully. She loosens the brain with a tweezer and puts it in a small glass bottle. Next to Siri, the otoliths from a huge cod from the Barents Sea are dissected out from under the fish brain and placed in a carefully labeled plastic bag. The otoliths have an important role in the fish´s sense of balance and hearing, in addition to being a storage for useful information such as age, growth, seasonal migrations and temperature conditions.

A typical day in the bank. From left Marthe Solhaug Jenssen, Eirik Fjeld, Tage Bratrud, and Siri Moy. (Photo: NIVA)

Eventually, samples of muscles, liver, and bile are lined up next to the samples of trout brain and cod otoliths. The samples are weighed, labeled and sealed before being brought to the freezer. Here, they are left at – 25 degrees, maybe for years, before a researcher picks them up again and brings them to the laboratory for chemical analyses.

The Environmental Specimen Bank contains frozen samples of fish and birds, among others, from mainland Norway and from the Arctic. Samples stored in the bank are time capsules representing today´s environment, enabling future analyses with future knowledge and technology. (Photo: NIVA).

From blue mussels to polar bears

All data are saved in a database, which contains information about thousands of samples. And in the freezers, samples from fish, blue mussels, bird eggs, polar bears, arctic foxes, seals, otters, wolverines and reindeers – even mosses, air samples and sewage samples - are stored.

Siri Moy taking samples of a trout from lake Mjøsa. (Photo: NIVA)

Investing in the future

The chemical industry continuously produces new substances, of which many turn out to have concerning effects in animals and humans. Some of them are prohibited and substituted by other chemicals, but unfortunately, the substituents often happen to be toxic themselves. By changing only a few details in the chemical formula of a regulated contaminant, the new compound stay clear from regulations, but the chemical characteristics are often just as bad as the old compound.

Identifying new compounds in the environment is a long-term project. Pollutants know no borders. They are dispersed by wind and ocean currents across longitudes and latitudes, and 10 to 20 years might pass from a new chemical is introduced in a product, before it is identified as an environmental problem.

The purpose of the Environmental Specimen Bank

The bank and the freezer are safely located in the basement of the CIENS building at Oslo Science Park. It is owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, and operated by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), and the University of Oslo. The daily operations are attributed to NIVA, whilst all parties contribute with knowledge and sample material.

- The Environmental Specimen Bank was established in the autumn 2012, and opened for withdrawal of samples for researchers to use in 2016, says Marthe Solhaug Jenssen, research assistent at NIVA.

- The bank was established because the environmental management authorities and research environments requested a systematic program for collection and storage of environmental samples, both biotic and abiotic. The samples function as time capsules for the monitoring of emerging environmental contaminants.

Take a tour of the bank in the video below!!

Contaminants in cosmetics

Emerging contaminants are not only found in pesticides and industrial chemicals, but also in everyday consumer products. They are everywhere; in cosmetics, clothing and other textiles, packaging, electronics, cleaning products, paint, and car care products.

- We need high quality research and publications in acknowledged scientific journals to achieve international regulation of emerging contaminants. Stored environmental samples with background levels of emerging contaminants are fundamental for the detection of possible new dispersion patterns, Jenssen explains.

Marte Solhaug Jenssen in the freezer at the Environmental Specimen Bank (-25°C). (Photo: NIVA)

Contaminated trout in lake Mjøsa

Brominated flame retardants are an example of a group of emerging compounds. At the beginning of the 2000´s, NIVA and NILU for the first time documented that predatory fish in lake Mjøsa contained some of the highest concentrations of the environmental pollutant PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in the world. By analyzing early samples from Mjøsa, the researchers were able to date when the emissions of PBDE in lake Mjøsa started; a significant increase in PBDE levels in environmental samples from the mid-1990s coincided with a nearby company´s introduction of PBDEs in its production. These findings initiated a systematic monitoring of flame retardants and other environmental contaminants in lake Mjøsa, and the results from Mjøsa were important for the work towards the international ban of brominated flame retardants.

Bird eggs

In Trondheim, a collection of bird eggs is ready for shipping to the specimen bank in Oslo. During the breeding season this year, almost 500 eggs from Svalbard and mainland Norway were collected for storage in the freezer in Oslo. Senior researcher Torgeir Nygård at NINA was responsible for the sampling.

- We have samples both from sea birds and land birds. Sea birds represent marine food chains, whilst land birds represent terrestrial food chains, Nygård explains and emphasizes that bird egg samples are important.

- High levels of contaminants are deposited in the eggs at a critical life stage for the development of the bird fetuses. The contaminants in eggs are often fat soluble, but in contrast to fish, who excrete water soluble compounds through their gills, bird eggs may also contain water soluble contaminants. Several perfluorinated compounds found in firefighting foam, impregnation, and ski waxes are water soluble compounds.

International network

The Norwegian Environmental Specimen Bank is part of an international network of specimen banks. The International Environmental Specimen Bank Group (IESB) works globally to develop techniques and strategies for specimen banks. Both old and new specimen banks, and specimen banks in the planning phase, are part of the IESB.

One of the oldest specimen banks is found at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm. It was established in the mid-1960s, and contains samples of birds and fish used in unique time series of contaminant trends.  Data from the Stockholm samples were essential when Swedish environmental authorities worked to get the perfluorinated compound PFOS listed in the Stockholm Convention. The Stockholm Convention is an international environmental convention that aims to protect health and environment from persistent organic pollutants (POPs).   

View video: This is how you search in the Environmental Specimen Bank

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