Target Health Blog

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

October 5, 2020

History of Medicine

An aerial view of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory campus 2014. Photo credit: by Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, U.S. Department of Energy -, Public Domain; Wikipedia Commons; As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is an American multiprogram science and technology national laboratory sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Established in 1942, ORNL is the largest science and energy national laboratory in the Department of Energy system and is located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville. ORNL's scientific programs focus on materials, neutron science, energy, high-performance computing, systems biology and national security. ORNL partners with the state of Tennessee, universities and industries, to solve challenges in energy, advanced materials, manufacturing, security and physics.

The laboratory has several of the world's top supercomputers; among these, Summit is ranked by the TOP500 as the world's second-most powerful supercomputer. The lab also is a leading neutron-science and nuclear-energy research facility that includes the Spallation Neutron Source and High Flux Isotope Reactor.

The town of Oak Ridge was established by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Clinton Engineer Works in 1942 on isolated farm land as part of the Manhattan Project. During the war, advanced research for the government was managed at the site by the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. In 1943, construction of the “Clinton Laboratories“ was completed, later renamed to “Oak Ridge National Laboratory“. The site was chosen for the X-10 Graphite Reactor, used to show that plutonium can be created from enriched uranium. Enrico Fermi and his colleagues developed the world's second self-sustaining nuclear reactor after Fermi's previous experiment, the Chicago Pile-1. The X-10 was the first reactor designed for continuous operation.

After the end of World War II the demand for weapons-grade plutonium fell and the reactor and the laboratory's 1000 employees were no longer involved in nuclear weapons. Instead, it was used for scientific research. In 1946 the first medical isotopes were produced in the X-10 reactor, and by 1950 almost 20,000 samples had been shipped to various hospitals. Over time, ORNL switched part of its focus to biological research.

The Biosciences Division (BSD) at ORNL is focused on advancing science and technology to better understand complex biological systems and their relationship with the environment. The division has expertise and special facilities in genomics, computational biology, microbiology, microbial ecology, biophysics and structural biology, and plant sciences. This collective expertise includes collaborations within and outside ORNL and focuses on scientific challenges in biology for Department of Energy (DOE) missions in energy and the environment.

BSD is home to the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, a DOE Bioenergy Research Center focused on developing plants and microbes for a new generation of cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and industrially-relevant bioproducts and biofuels. Research also focuses on Plant-Microbe Interfaces, examining the exchange of energy, information, and materials between plants and microbial communities. Understanding the biological processes transforming mercury into the toxin methylmercury in the environment is another focus area.

Scientists in BSD use high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and genomic algorithms to uncover networks of genes that contribute to complex traits critical in bioenergy, human health, and other focus areas. They leverage ORNL's neutron science capabilities to increase understanding of the myriad structures and interactions inside cells. Researchers are examining the way proteins fold and how the cycling of disordered proteins between various three-dimensional shapes affects how genes are expressed. Fundamental science discoveries about the human microbiome are helping to inform the development of new diagnostics and new treatments for a range of diseases.

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