DNA, viruses, microbial organisms, insect and mammalian cells - all the samples that make up a company's biological resource are protected, stored and catalogued by biological archiving.

Newly produced recombinant cells come from scientists who've identified a receptor protein code in DNA that can be added to a cell to over produce that protein. These cells are valuable company assets and, to protect them, they are refrigerated or stored cryogenically (sometimes for decades) until they're needed to test target compounds.

The role of a biological archivist

Archivists receive and note the details of cells deposited in the archive, and retrieve and organise the delivery of samples requested from the archive's database. They provide training and advice on how to use the database, and coach and train business partners in the growth and handling of the biologicals stored in the archive. An archivist will also lead on developing best practice methods for use within the company. Biosafety is an important consideration, particularly when biological samples are transported and shipped internationally.

Scientifically and commercially, the work is vitally important because the archivists are looking after cells and other biologicals that could help identify and produce future drugs. From a more personal angle, the archivists are also responsible for years of scientists' work.

Automation has taken over a great many of the mundane archiving, retrieving and sampling tasks and speeded the drug development process, but there's still plenty of scope for new ideas to improve storage and processing. Creativity is highly valued and archivists who make a difference to working practices are usually promoted fast.

Working in biological archiving

For graduates in biology or a closely related discipline, there's a clear career path from Associate Scientist to Scientist to Senior Scientist to Investigator. Archivists don't tend to stray from this, or change companies often, although it's fairly easy to do so.

Looking after cell cultures appeals to biologists who want to develop their practical and theoretical knowledge – indeed, many archivists become quite attached to their cells! You also need to enjoy working individually and collaboratively, because you'll be doing both. As you're promoted, you'll spend more time in meetings and less in the lab, but that shouldn't be a surprise.

Last modified: 20 October 2023

Last reviewed: 20 October 2023