Whether it's storing human sperm and eggs in order for couples to have children when the time is right or storing plant cells to prevent the extinction of vital species, cryopreservation allows for the pausing of life for small biological materials so they can be saved to live on in the future.

Cryopreservation is the technique of storing biological materials, like cells, at low temperatures and then, one day, warming the cells to revive them. Colorado State University Chemistry Professor Nancy Levinger studies the dynamics of molecules in confined environments and fundamental processes governing cell cryopreservation. 

Dr. Levinger will present a TSRC Town Talk, titled “Suspended Animation: Exploring Secrets to Cryopreservation,” revealing how cells, tissues and potentially more can be preserved at extremely low temperatures

at the Telluride Conference Center in Mountain Village Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

The cryopreservation process includes placing various biological materials in different solutions that act as antifreeze while preserving cells at low temperatures. Successful cryopreservation also requires ensuring that cell membranes do not break due to ice crystal formation or from being oversaturated with water by osmosis.

“As soon as you start to freeze on the outside, the concentration of everything that’s left in the liquid part of the water goes up,” Levinger said. “The amount of water inside the cell wants to go up, so the cell would inflate. Instead, they use artificial cryopreservation agents in order to help prevent ice formation on the inside, but they also take up some space.”

Another issue with adding these chemicals into a biological material is that these chemicals are normally toxic, so they need to be added in small enough doses to ensure the material is alive when it thaws.

“When they thaw it back out, they can’t get rid of the stuff that they used to be able to freeze it, so it’s dangerous,” Levinger noted. “It’s like introducing toxic chemicals to a (sick) patient.”

To gain insight into why certain cryopreservation techniques work and what parts of the cryopreservation techniques actually contribute to keeping the cells alive, Levinger’s group looks to nature for inspiration, like pine bark beetles, which can hibernate to around -30 degrees Celsius.

“We take a page from nature’s book,” Levinger said. “We look at what nature does in order to keep things from freezing, and we use similar types of molecules.”

Levinger’s talk will be an introduction to cryopreservation, oriented towards anyone interested in learning more about the topic, regardless of scientific background. Her short presentation will be followed by an interview and Q&A session moderated by Emmy and Peabody award-winning television correspondent and professor emerita of broadcast journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Judy Muller.

TSRC Town Talks are free public presentations by world-renowned scientists on topics of current importance in science, technology, education and public policy. Dr. Levinger’s talk is the second in a seven-week series is sponsored by the nonprofit Telluride Science Research Center (TSRC), the world’s largest independent molecular science center. With a network of over 5,000 preeminent scientists from over 90 countries and 500 institutions, TSRC generates the fundamental knowledge-base for new solutions in many fields, including energy, medicine, water, climate, national security, and advanced materials for computing and manufacturing. 

To learn more about TSRC and the capital campaign to purchase the Telluride Depot as TSRC’s permanent home, visit telluridescience.org