New jewel of the waterfront Exploration begins at Columbia Center COLUMBUS CENTER

March 12, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's Columbus Center soon will start mapping unexplored worlds, as teams of scientists begin moving this week into its gleaming new laboratories.

Like the Italian navigator whose name it bears, the $160 million marine research and education facility has overcome skepticism and funding problems in its pursuit of audacious goals. Like the explorer Columbus, the center is under tremendous pressure to succeed.

Designed to study the biology of the ocean's plants and animals, center laboratories are supposed to produce discoveries that lead to new medicines and other commercial products -- creating companies and jobs for the region.

In the fall, the center's education arm will begin trying to nurture an interest in science and technology among area high school and elementary school students. And when the exhibition hall opens to the public next year, the center must try to market biotechnology -- the science of designing commercial biological products -- as a tourist attraction.

"Are we pushing the envelope here? Yes," said Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive officer of Columbus Center Development Inc. "Has anybody ever done this before? No. Were there doubts? Yes." But, he added, "people are starting to think we are doing it in the right way."

"There's no question it will succeed," declared Rita R. Colwell, the internationally known scientist who is president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and who came up with the idea of the center in 1985. The center would be a "citizen-friendly science city that would really bring children and families to understand what science is," she said.

"I think it will be a tremendous boon to biotechnology in Baltimore," said Solomon H. Snyder of the Johns Hopkins University medical school, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist whose work has led to the development of new drugs.

"The bottom line is, it's going to enhance building the infrastructure, bringing industry and science together," said William Washecka, director of high technology for the accounting firm Ernst & Young. "But we've got to see execution. We've got to see something coming out of it. A product. A transfer of technology. A buy-in from business," he said.

"It will be one of the premier institutions in the world the day it opens," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and an early promoter of the center.

"It's a different kind of a tourist attraction than almost anything you can imagine," said Walter Sondheim, a founder of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a leader of the downtown renaissance. "But everything that's been done at the Inner Harbor has been a risk. The city would get nowhere if it didn't take some leaps of faith."

First to move in

The first tenants of the Columbus Center will be 92 scientists and other researchers with the Center of Marine Biotechnology, or COMB, part of the university's biotechnology institute. They will move from Baltimore City Community College.

Much of COMB's work is basic research -- an effort to answer fundamental questions about natural processes. But Madilyn Fletcher, COMB's director, said she and the other scientists are increasingly watching the bottom line.

"You can do something that's interesting, or you can do something that's interesting and has an ultimate application," she said. "More and more, we're going toward the latter."

Columbus scientists will work on developing high-tech fish farms, on using biological processes to clean up hazardous wastes at military bases and on designing devices using living tissue in electronic circuits. Here's a sampling of other research:

* Dr. Russell Hill is studying marine microbes called "actinomycetes," work that could aid the search for new antibiotics. That search is urgent, because disease-causing microbes are increasingly resistant to existing drugs.

* Dr. Frank T. Robb is studying micro-organisms that live in water heated to near boiling by deep-sea thermal vents. Heat-resistant enzymes produced by those creatures could have industrial applications.

* Dr. Kevin R. Sowers studies bacteria that live where there is no oxygen. His work could lead to ways to speed up the natural decay of pollutants in oxygen-free environments, such as those at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.

* Dr. Marianne Walch, a Navy researcher, is studying whether biological products can be used to make new, environmentally benign paint removers for use on the bottom of ships.

* Dr. Yonathan Zohar will continue his work on manipulating fish hormones to induce spawning. Several years ago, he discovered that one way to speed the delivery of hormones or drugs into fish is by putting the fish in a concentrated bath of the substance and then subjecting them to ultrasound.

Work on the center began in 1987, after Dr. Colwell met with Mr. Heuisler, Mr. Embry and lawyer Russell T. Baker.

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