What is the Best Freezer Technology for Disaster Recovery Planning for Biomaterial?

Disaster recovery

Natural disasters, extended power outages, and equipment failures can affect our ability to maintain a consistent environment for storage of priceless biomaterial. Disaster recovery plans that include multiple backup systems are essential for all professional biostorage and research facilities. In disaster scenarios, the choice of freezer type can make the difference between complete sample loss and maintaining biomaterial integrity.

In the past, natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina (2005) and superstorm Sandy (2012) have caused severe damage to valuable collections of biomaterial. 1,2 Inadvertent equipment failures have also jeopardized priceless tissue collections, exemplified by the dramatic loss of 1/3 of the world’s largest collection of autistic brain samples after freezer failure. 3 These and similar unfortunate events have reshaped our thinking about disaster recovery and the need to protect stored biomaterial from events beyond our control.

Plans for risk mitigation and disaster recovery are now recognized to be an essential feature in biobanks, biotech companies, and core facilities at universities.4,5 However, one choice rarely considered in the context of disaster recovery is the selection of the type of freezers used for storage of cryogenic biomaterial. The consequences of this choice are highlighted in a new video from Brooks Life Sciences, where Kathi Shea, the company’s Biobank Business Leader, weighs LN2-cooled storage technology against mechanical freezers.

Kathi Shea makes a compelling argument in favor of storage technologies based on liquid nitrogen. “Mechanically cooled freezers require a dry environment for their compressors, and power 24/7. But liquid nitrogen cooled freezers can operate for extended periods of time without electricity,” she explains, and subsequently points out that cryogenic storage in LN2 tanks has some unique disaster mitigation benefits that other cold storage technologies cannot offer. “In a power outage, full mechanical freezers will warm at a rate of up to 10°C per hour. … Samples that are stored in an LN2 tank are much safer, as these tanks will maintain temperature for upwards of 20 days for your biological products.”

This extra time might make all the difference in disaster response scenarios. Emergency rescue operations, especially when properly planned, will in all likelihood be concluded within a few days, and biomaterial collections stored in LN2-based units, if properly maintained and regularly filled with liquid nitrogen, will not have suffered from temperature fluctuations or transient warming events (TWEs). Such TWEs are known to cause a substantial decrease in post-thaw viability and functionality of stem cells. 6

In disaster recovery situations, as well as for everyday operations, Brooks Life Sciences offers an ideal solution to cryogenic biomaterial storage, with the automated BioStore™ III Cryo -190°C System. These systems are advantageous in disaster recovery because it is LN2-based and can hold the temperature for up to three weeks or more after LN2 replenishment. In the event of a natural disaster or an extended power outage, the biological products that are in the unit are therefore completely safe and stored at temperatures lower than the glass transition temperature of water (approximately -135°C), conditions under which all biological activity and diffusion are thought to cease. 7 The system is perfect for everyday operations because it minimizes the persistent problem of transient warming events for innocent samples, i.e. biomaterial samples that happen to reside close to a sample that is marked for retrieval from storage. In simple LN2 tanks, entire racks are usually removed by hand from the cold environment to obtain a single sample, whereas in the automated BioStore™ III Cryo -190°C System, only the relevant biomaterial box is retrieved.  Likewise, the and BioStore™ III Vario Systems which utilizes the same automation technology will maintain consistent ultra-low temperature levels (-70°C or -80°C depending on set point) during the retrieval process. Brooks has discussed the numerous advantages of this and similar automation strategies in a previous blog.

When formulating disaster recovery policies, installation of an automated LN2-based freezer system would, therefore, be an appropriate consideration and a perfect choice for biobanks and biorepositories as well as core facilities and biological laboratories that need to store biosamples at cryogenic temperatures. As Kathi Shea points out, “The BioStore™ III Cryo -190°C System retains the benefits of a manual LN2 freezer, but also provides improved protection and efficiency with the use of sample automation… By having the automation, we provide consistency in sample handling. We minimize sample warmings, keeping all samples… below the glass transition temperature, and protecting the innocents.”

Naturally, planning for disaster recovery does not stop with the choice of the appropriate and best biostorage technology. Such plans must also include often-neglected training sessions for key personnel 8 and contingency plans for relocation of the entire laboratory. These issues will be the topic of a future blog entry. Stay tuned.





1. Fishell G. Hurricane Sandy: After the deluge. Nature 2013. 496(7446):421-2. PMID: 23619676; https://www.nature.com/articles/496421a

2. Dalton R. New Orleans researchers fight to salvage work from submerged labs. Nature 2005. 437(7057):300. PMID: 16163308; https://www.nature.com/articles/437300a

3. Weintraub, K. Freezer Failure at Brain Bank Hampers Autism Research. The Boston Globe June 11, 2012. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/freezer-failure-brain-bank-hampers-autism-research-6-11-12

4. Hager R. Biobanking Operations: Contingency Planning and Disaster Recovery of Research Samples. BioProcessing Journal 2014. 13:56–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.12665/J131.Hager

5. Mische S, Wilkerson A. Disaster and Contingency Planning for Scientific Shared Resource Cores. J Biomol Tech. 2016. 27(1): 4–17. PMCID: PMC4736755; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4736755/

6. Fink, J., Karnieli, O. The Effect of Common Transient Warming Events on Post Thaw Recovery and Functionality of Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells Stored in LN2 Vapour Environment. Cytotherapy 2017; 19(5):S112; http://www.celltherapyjournal.org/article/S1465-3249(17)30231-1/fulltext

7. Dörr D, Stracke F, Zimmermann H. Noninvasive Quality Control of Cryopreserved Samples. Biopreserv Biobank 2012. 10(6):529-31. PMCID: PMC3698688; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23840924

8. Reardon S. US biomedical-research facilities unprepared for attacks and natural disasters. Nature 2017. 548(7667):270. PMID: 28816261; https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2017.22446

Steffen Porwollik

Steffen Porwollik, PhD

Steffen Porwollik, PhD, is a senior scientific writing consultant with APEX Think Corporation. With a background in genetics he has over 80 peer-reviewed research articles. He graduated with a Masters equivalent in Biochemistry from Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany and with a PhD in Molecular Biology from Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Steffen has been involved in genome sequencing from the get-go, being part of the team that published the very first complete bacterial genome, B. subtilis. He is currently involved in developing innovative high-throughput methods and tools to investigate functions of the entire repertoire of Salmonella genes on a systems biology level.