The American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) was founded in 1925 as a repository for donated strains of bacteria. The first catalog in 1927 listed bacteria with names like “Streptococcus from cheese” and strains from Louis Pasteur’s laboratory. ATCC still houses its originally deposited strains, as well as viruses, fungi, yeast, protozoa, tumor cell lines, and related recombinant DNA biomaterials.
The molecular biology clone collection grew out of genome sequencing projects in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is the largest subcollection at ATCC with 8 million cloned genes from various species including humans, rodents, monkeys, plants, and zebrafish. Most people still think of ATCC as a biorepository that accepts donations of living organisms. However, “we are more than that—we’re a biological resource center, too,” says Ray Cypess, Ph.D., DVM, CEO and chairman of ATCC.
Rather than just serving as curators of microbial libraries and cell lines, ATCC researchers provide information about cells, turning them into value-added assets. Staff scientists conduct a variety of research projects, such as descriptions of new species, genomics, infectious disease diagnostics, and improved storage and characterization methods.
ATCC’s collections of microorganisms and cell lines serve as reference materials for life science applications, such as food quality testing, water and environmental monitoring, and therapeutic and diagnostic products.
“In addition to merely warehousing and distributing these microbial assets, we also link them to information and develop them into more valuable tools for the research community,” says Dr. Cypess.
For example, ATCC recently collaborated with Promega and Life Technologies to access bioluminescence and fluorescent technologies. “Our intent is to embed these technologies into our biological materials to improve the detection of in vivo and in vitro systems for the academic and drug discovery markets,” says Dr. Cypess.
Scientists at ATCC provide related customer services, such as isolating nucleic acids and cell lysates from organisms for further characterization and refinement. Clients include academic institutions, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and food, beverage, and cosmetics makers. Currently, about 70% of ATCC clients are academic researchers and 30% are biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.
The business model at ATCC now reflects the modern reality of the biological research environment. Academic researchers once freely contributed cells to ATCC, but now deposits are covered under an agreement that recognizes the potential commercial success of a microbe or cell line. Royalties from sales by ATCC are shared with the depositing academic institution.
ATCC researchers continually add new offerings to cell collections. Among the newest acquisitions are black meristematic fungi from the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. These fungi live in extremely dry environments characterized by high salinity and irradiation and scarce nutrients. The organisms are thick-walled and have melanin that resists dryness and UV radiation. They could serve as models for extraterrestrial life forms, says Dr. Cypess.
Other new offerings are antibiotic- and toxin-typed bacterial and fungal strains, including Clostridium difficile and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which are difficult to grow. ATCC’s BSL-3+ facility handles challenging infectious disease reagent provisioning.
ATCC’s expanded Tumor Cell Panels include tissue types with diverse genetic mutations such as bone cancer, leukemia, head and neck cancer, and stomach cancer panels. Cells in these panels are annotated with gene mutation data from the Catalog of Somatic Mutations in Cancer database. They are useful for studying genetic mechanisms associated with tumorigenesis, angiogenesis, and metastasis.
Stem cell researchers can buy a suite of stem cell products, including ready-to-use iPSC lines derived from different tissue types and with different reprogramming methods; a widely used hESC line; a growing list of hMSC lines; and a large mESC collection. All stem cell lines contain cryopreserved cells, optimized media and supplements, and reagents and cryopreservation media.
Virology researchers can save time and money by using a variety of viral nucleic acids isolated from human and animal sources, such as adeno, herpes, influenza, respiratory syncytial, and corona viruses. ATCC scientists extract viral nucleic acids under aseptic conditions to prevent cross contamination, and they confirm quality and purity by several methods, according to Dr. Cypess.
The overall mission of ATCC still revolves around preserving biological materials and making them available to the scientific community. But the immediate goal is to identify clinically relevant tumor cell lines, bacterial variants, and viral isolates. ATCC scientists are adding value to them by characterizing the genomes for use as biomarkers or in detection systems. “We want to put more energy into useful new applications,” says Dr. Cypess.
Additionally, ATCC is seeking feedback about the needs of its customers to guide the design of new biological tools. As a nonprofit, “our mission is not about increasing profits and stock price, but about supporting the research community. We need an open dialog to do that,” says Dr. Cypess.