Molecular biologist Thomas T. Chen has figured out how to fool Mother Nature.
The fish he bathes in growth hormone or embryos he injects with growth hormone genes grow 20 to 80 percent faster than fish left with the amount of the hormone nature gave them, according to his studies.
Manipulating the genetic makeup of living things to make them better, bigger, faster-growing and disease resistant is the mission of the Center of Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore. And the marine biotech center will form the cornerstone of the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration being dedicated today.
Already, a small company called Biotrex has developed plans to grow large quantities of fish growth hormone protein. And Aquagene, a new company in College Park, is gearing up to start fish farming in Southern Maryland's Piney Point.
Clara Cheng, a graduate student in Dr. Chen's lab, recently found the gene for growth hormone in rockfish, or striped bass, and Aquagene wants to use it to grow rockfish in the old eel hatchery at Piney Point, Dr. Chen said.
Spinning off new companies to take science out of the laboratory and into the marketplace was what Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, had in mind when he came up with the idea for the technology center.
"There's a great need in this country for applied research," he said. "It's my hope that it [the Christopher Columbus Center] will help the United States maintain their pre-eminence in this area of research and will lead to a significant number of new jobs and businesses for this area, helping to transform Baltimore's industrial base in 21st-century technologies."
The unabashed cheerleader for the Christopher Columbus Center is 49-year-old Stan Heuisler, editor of Baltimore magazine.
"I fully hope that there will be a Christopher Columbus Paint Company, Christopher Columbus Fish Cakes, Christopher Columbus Pharmaceuticals, Christopher Columbus Marine Glue. I could go on and on," Mr. Heuisler said.
He envisions the center as a hub where the public will be able to see science in action, demystifying some of the newest technology through exhibits and sessions for students.
The center also plans to teach elementary, high school and college teachers to present biology to their students in more exciting ways, he said.
"It will be a mini-university," Mr. Heuisler said.
Four years ago, poor in funding but brimming with enthusiasm, Rita Colwell of the University of Maryland dreamed of a world-class marine biotechnology center.
Then a couple of white knights appeared on her doorstep asking if she would like to establish such a center, built by the federal government, on the Baltimore waterfront.
"It took her about twenty seconds to buy into the idea," recalls Mr. Heuisler, who had joined forces with Mr. Embry.
Mr. Heuisler thought Baltimore should do something special around the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' New World landing next year. Convinced that Baltimore had a competitive edge in marine biotechnology, Mr. Embry was eager to create a major technology center downtown.
The two men, brought together by one of the guiding forces of modern-day Baltimore, Walter Sondheim, drew Dr. Colwell into their planning circle, and the Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration was born.
The project has more than $34.5 million committed for design and construction, including $31.5 million in federal funds, $1.68 million in state funds, $1 million in city funds, and $410,000 from private organizations and foundations.
Another $12 million for a parking garage is available in the form of city parking revenue bonds, and the land donated by the city is worth $34 million.
That brings the total commitment for the project to more than $80 million.
Dr. Colwell and Mr. Heuisler say that the federal commitment should make the remainder of the money needed from state, city and private sources easier to get.
But hurdles remain for the young biotech companies hoping to capitalize on the center's research.
Commercial use of growth hormone in fish awaits the approval of the federal Food and Drug Administration. An applicant has to show that the added growth hormone does what it is supposed to do and that it is safe in fish meat and fish eggs for people and the environment, said Dr. Bert Mitchell, director of surveillance and compliance in the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. The approval process takes years, he said.
But aquaculture is already beginning and will flourish because of growing worldwide demand for high quality seafood, he predicted.
"A restaurant could make a call to an aquaculture facility down the street and have two dozen bass ready for customers' dinners that night. That's fresh!" Dr. Mitchell said.
Besides aquaculture, many other scientific projects are under way at the Center of Marine Biotechnology, which will move into the Columbus Center from the fifth floor of the New Community College of Baltimore's harbor campus.
For example, biochemist Gerardo R. Vasta is trying to learn exactly how shellfish protect themselves against disease and why they don't always kill bacteria that can cause food poisoning in humans who eat raw shellfish.
Other scientists are investigating organisms that foul boat surfaces and pilings. Projects are planned to develop drugs to treat AIDS and cancer, underwater adhesives and micro-organisms that consume toxic substances in oil spills.
But one major purpose of the center cannot be planned in any detail.
"When a molecular biologist and a chemist sit down for lunch together at the Christopher Columbus Center and come up with an idea neither of them knew they were working on, then the center is up and running."