Past, present, and future of environmental specimen banks
Environ Health Prev Med
Past, present, and future of environmental specimen banks
Akio Koizumi 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Kouji H. Harada 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Kayoko Inoue 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Toshiaki Hitomi 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Hye-Ran Yang 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Chan-Seok Moon 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Peiyu Wang 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Nguyen Ngoc Hung 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Takao Watanabe 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Shinichiro Shimbo 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Masayuki Ikeda 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
0 C.-S. Moon Department of Industrial Health, Catholic University of Pusan , Busan 609-757 , Korea
1 H.-R. Yang Research Institute of Public Health and Environment, Seoul Metropolitan Government , Seoul 137-130 , Korea
2 A. Koizumi (&) K. H. Harada K. Inoue T. Hitomi H.-R. Yang Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, Graduate School of Medicine, Kyoto University , Yoshida Konoe, Sakyo, Kyoto 606-8501 , Japan
3 M. Ikeda Kyoto Industrial Health Association , Kyoto 604-8472 , Japan
4 S. Shimbo Department of Food and Nutrition, Kyoto Women's University , Kyoto 605-8501 , Japan
5 T. Watanabe Miyagi University of Education , Sendai 980-0845 , Japan
6 N. N. Hung Department of Science and Technology, Hanoi Medical University , Hanoi, S.R. Vietnam
7 P. Wang Department of Health Education, School of Public Health, Peking University , Beijing 100083 , People's Republic of China
Environmental specimen banks are an essential part of the infrastructure of environmental sciences. They have various functions: (1) evaluation of governmental environmental policy-making and regulations; (2) a resource for animal health evaluation; (3) research tools to investigate time trends in ecosystems; (4) detection of newly emerging chemicals in the time trends; (5) validations of computer models for environmental phenomena; (6) source identification of contaminants; (7) a tool for food safety; (8) evaluation of genetic selection pressure due to environmental changes. In this review paper, we present a detailed description of the Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank (history, protocol and questionnaires) and provide brief outlines of other representative environmental specimen banks. We then review two illustrative cases in which environmental specimen banks have unveiled insidious contaminations of polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluorooctanoic acids. Finally, we give a perspective of new functions for environmental specimen banks in the next 20 years.
Environmental specimen banks; Food duplicate sample; Human breast milk; Human blood
The rapid development of new materials, new production
methods, and new pharmaceuticals and commercial
products in the 21st century has resulted in the release and/or
emission of a myriad of chemicals into the environment.
The environmental fates of only a few of the estimated
70,000 chemicals commonly used in industry have been
characterized. Since monitoring lags far behind the rate of
new development, regulatory decisions should be made as
soon as possible to minimize the effects on ecological
systems, including wild animal health.
An environmental specimen bank (ESB) is an
organization and facility that is engaged in the systematic
long-term preservation of representative environmental
specimens. Specimens from ESBs have been used for
retrospective analysis and evaluation for regulatory
decisionmaking. As such, a well-designed ESB can be a valuable
resource of specimens for real-time and retrospective
monitoring. Specimens maintained in ESBs have enabled
investigators to extend their current research on
presentday situations into the past as well as extrapolate it to the
future. They enable future exposure assessments for given
chemicals to be made under various scenarios.
In the last 30 years, formal ESBs have been constructed
in many countries, including the USA, Germany, Sweden,
and Japan. A human specimen bank has also recently been
established in Kyoto University (i.e., the Kyoto University
Human Specimen Bank) [
]. An important aspect of this
specimen bank is that it provides the means to reconstruct
human exposures from the 1970s through to 2008. The bank
contains human samples collected not only in Japan but also
in various Asian countries, including China, Korea,
Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, and is thus
expected to provide a means of monitoring temporal as well
as geographic trends in environmental contamination.
The major aim of this review is to introduce the Kyoto
University Human Specimen Bank. Features of
representative ESBs—in Japan, the USA, Germany and Sweden—
are also compared to demonstrate individual functions of
the ESBs. Finally, we discuss the future functions of ESBs
in the environmental sciences.
Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank and other representative environmental specimen banks throughout the world
As of 2008, there are more than a dozen ESBs in the world,
with one also currently under construction in France. Here,
we provide a brief description of a number of these as well
as their protocols (Table 1).
Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank
The Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank was
established in 2004 at the Kyoto University Graduate School of
]. The stored samples originate from four
research activities. The first group of samples was collected
in Japan as part of the nation-wide heavy-metal monitoring
projects led by Prof. Ikeda [
] during the late 1970s up to
the 1990s. Beginning in 1980s, samples were
systematically collected in Japan and other Asian countries within
the framework of a consistent sampling design in which
participants donated blood, urine and duplicate 24-h food
samples. Personal information and biochemical data were
obtained by questionnaire and biochemical analysis and
included data on age, gender, blood pressure, past and
present illnesses, medication use, aspartate
aminotransferase, alanine, gamma-glutamyl transferase, total cholesterol,
triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, urinary
protein, and red blood cells in urine [
]. In the duplicate
food sampling protocol, the foods are cooked and meal
menus recorded. The samples are then transferred to the
laboratory within 48 h and stored at -30 C until
processed. In the processing of food samples, each food
composite homogenate is weighed and homogenized
together with the drinking water. One-liter (approx. 1 kg)
portions of the total homogenate are stored in ten 100-ml
bottles at -30 C. Concurrent and long-term trends in Pb
and Cd exposures are reported in detail [
The second group of samples comprises samples
collected in Akita prefecture during the 1980s. The samples
consist of breast milk, blood, and serum samples donated
by the Hiraga General Hospital in the rural area of Akita.
These samples were originally collected to monitor
farmers’ exposure to pesticides [
The third group of samples was collected by Prof.
Koizumi and his colleagues from 2004 to 2006 [
]. Blood and
breast milk samples were collected nationwide in Okinawa,
Kochi, Hyogo, Kyoto, Takayama (Gifu), Fukui, Tokyo,
Miyagi, Akita, and Shizunai (Hokkaido). In this project,
commercially available packed breakfast, lunch, and dinner
samples were collected from those sampling sites. Breast
milk sampling was conducted until 12 weeks post-partum.
Blood and breast milk donors also submitted self-reported
questionnaires (Table 2). Within the framework of this
study, food samples were homogenized as a set of
breakfast, lunch, and dinner samples, and drinking water was
collected at the sampling sites in the same manner as in the
The fourth group of samples was collected in 2007 and
2008 in Japan (Miyagi, Takayama, and Kyoto), Beijing in
China, Seoul, and Busan in Korea and Hanoi in Vietnam.
In this project, blood or breast milk samples were collected
domestically. However, blood and meals were sampled in
the same way as in the third group of samples mentioned
above. The donors of blood and food completed
selfreported questionnaires (Table 2) and food record sheets
(Table 3). All breast milk donors, irrespective of
nationality, followed the same protocol: samples were collected
up to 12 weeks post-partum, and donors filled out
questionnaires (Table 2).
The total quantities of samples are shown in Table 1.
Meta data describing the donor’s personal information are
shown in Table 1.
The Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank was
designed so that human exposure assessments can be made
on samples taken from the 1980s to the present. When
distribution requests are received, the protocol will be
reviewed by the committee of our sample bank. If the
request is approved, our sample bank will release the
specimens requested to the researcher(s) without any fees
other than shipping.
Time capsule NIES
Founded in 2004 by National
Institute for Environmental
Marine sediments, marine mammal
tissues, seabird eggs, peregrine falcon
eggs and feathers
While relatively small numbers of human 125 volunteers aged between 20 and 29
samples (8–722), a large numbers of per location and year for 4 sites joined
ecological animal samples the donation of samples
The National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) in
Japan started a pilot ESB in 1979. The Environmental
Specimen Time Capsule program was extended and has
started storing environmental specimens and genetic
resources of endangered species (Table 1). The aim of this
specimen bank is to store specimens for a long period
(50–100 years) to await future needs and analyses. The
bank has compiled atmospheric samples as well as samples
of bivalves, fish, and human breast milk. The bivalve
archives are very comprehensive and very important as
environmental samples. Specifically, they are expected to
provide information on long-term changes in genetic
diversity or the natural selection of these species due to
This ESB, which is supported nationally, is
characterized by long-term storage under the strong initiative of the
NIES; as such, it does not allow the distribution of samples
ESB, Environmental Specimen Bank; es-Bank, Ehime University; NIES, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Japan; NBSB, National
Biomonitoring Specimen Bank, USA
Ehime University (Matsuyama City, Japan) began
collecting environmental specimens in 1965 [
]. At that time,
Ehime University focused on collecting specimens for
studying local environmental contamination with
pesticides that had been used by regional farmers. Samples were
systematically collected and stored by the staff of Ehime
University, and these samples later became seeds for
subsequent collections of samples on larger scales. Thousands
of samples from all over the world have been collected by
the research group of the center for marine environmental
studies over the past three decades. A large portion of these
globally collected ecological samples was upgraded to
form the es-Bank in 2002. The unique scientific merit of
this collection, which cannot be matched by other
environmental specimen banks, is its global scope, with a large
number of specimens from the Asia–Pacific region
upon request by researchers. At the present time, the time
capsule ESB does not seem to have a systematic sampling
design; rather, it seems to be aimed at covering a large
variety of research needs in the future.
The U.S. National Biomonitoring Specimen Bank
and the Marine Environmental Specimen Bank
These two banks are very well designed and have a very
clear protocol [
]. There are two national ESBs that have
very similar designs. The first sample bank is the CASPIR
[The CDC (center for disease control) and ATSDR
(Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Specimen Packaging, Inventory and Repository], which
has collected various human specimens as part of public
health activities by the CDC and ATSDR. The second
sample bank is maintained by the National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST) and consists of two
separate facilities: the National Biomonitoring Specimen
Bank and the Marine Environmental Specimen Bank.
While CASPIR maintains specimens for human health
research, the NIST banks are designed for environmental
research (Table 1).
The relevant ESB in the USA continuously monitors
animals living in diverse environments covering Texas
desert areas, Hawaii, and Alaska [
]. Activities also
include monitoring endangered species. The collections
cover fish, mammals, avian species, and plants. This
sample bank was designed to consider the transfer of
contamination through the food web and the health status
of wild animals and as such, it plays a key role in quality
assurance. Stored samples are presently being analyzed
using newer and more sensitive analytical methods.
German Environmental Specimen Bank for human
tissues (ESBHum: http://www.umweltprobenbank.de)
The ESBHum was established as part of the German
Environmental Specimen bank, and it focuses on human
exposure assessments by real-time and retrospective
]. Samples are processed annually to
measure 20 inorganic (Sb, Th, As, Ba, Cd, Pb, Hg, Ag,
Tl, Sn, U, Cu, Ca, Fe, Mg, K, Se, Na, Sr and Zn) and
five organic (hexachlorobenzene, pentachlorophenol,
PCB-138, PCB-153 and PCB-180) chemicals. Samples
are donated annually by 500 voluntary students aged
BACKGROUND: At present, it is believed that 300 billion chemicals are registered in the world. Human beings are currently exposed to about
100,000 chemicals in their daily lives. Of those, only a small number of chemicals, that is, about 1,000 chemicals, have been fully risk-assessed,
while the remaining majority of chemicals have not been investigated
Some chemicals which once were produced actively because of their usefulness are now banned, because of their hazardous effects on human
health as well as the ecosystem. For example, DDT and PCBs were once considered useful chemicals but are now banned because of global
environmental contamination. After banning their production, the environment is recovering very slowly. As such, long term monitoring
studies of environmental contaminants are needed
AIM of the CURRENT STUDY: Asian countries in the midstream of globalization are now considered passengers in the same environmental
boat. To install precautionary measures to effectively prevent environmental contamination in the Asian area, future trend prediction using
computer simulation based on cutting edge theories is now considered very promising. However, only a small number of observations have
been available to validate such simulation theories. If the computer simulation results are in agreement with reconstructed data, such a
simulation theory is believed to be reliable to predict future levels of environmental contamination. We have established the Human Specimen
Bank in Kyoto University (The Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank). Stocked samples (diet, breast milk, and blood) have been collected
in Japan, Korea and China since the 1970s. Each sample has information about sampling time and geographic location. We are thus planning to
reconstruct the past environment from the 1980s onwards using historical human samples in our sample bank
REQUEST to Participants: We have collected human specimens from the late 1970s onwards and stored them in the Human Specimen Bank in
Kyoto University. We are going to make full use of these samples to reconstruct the past environment from the 1980s to the present. Although
we have stored historical Japanese samples up to 2005 and Korean and Chinese samples up to 2000, we do not have updated samples. Thus we
would like to request that you donate 5-ml of blood or ca 30 ml breast milk. These samples will be used to validate computer simulation
theories and will be stored for future use in the environmental sciences
We hope you understand our aim and will cooperate with our project
The 4 countries in collaboration for environmental sciences
Director KOIZUMI Akio M.D., Ph.D. (Professor, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan)
YANG Hye-Ran Ph.D. (Researcher, Seoul Metropolitan Government Research Institute of Public Health and Environment, Seoul, Korea)
CHOI Kyung Ho, D.V.M., PhD. (Associate Professor, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea)
WANG Peiyu, M.D., Ph.D. (Deputy Dean, Peking University, Beijing, China)
Nguyen Ngoc Hung, M.D., Ph.D. (Professor, Hanoi Medical University, Hanoi, Vietnam)
Definition of categories: , Present as breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack; `, meal time; ´, place eaten (e.g., at home, at work, at MacDonald’s, other
fast food restaurant, etc.); ˆ, name of food eaten (e.g., cooked rice with black beans, Miso soup with mushrooms); ˜, amount eaten (e.g., 2/3 rice bowl,
1 soup bowl, 1 each of beef burger, 1 bottle of yogurt); Þ, food ingredients [e.g., miso, mushroom, onion, beef (record which part, if possible),
seasoning, etc]; þ, cooking method, such as steaming, frying, boiling, etc; ¼, weight measured by scale balance; ½, commercial brand name or product
name and , company name are required, if subject to consumed processed food (e.g. Drinking yogurt, Meiji)
20–29 years, who live in four cities (Munster, Halle,
Griefswald, and Ulm). The participants provide 24-h
urine, blood, and other human specimens. Detailed
personal information is attached to the samples. Given
this context, the ESBHum can be said to be designed for
health-related environmental monitoring.
The Swedish Specimen Bank, Swedish Museum
of Natural History
This ESB was initiated in 1980 by the Swedish
Environmental Protection Agency to study residue levels of
pollutants and their effects on biota in terrestrial, freshwater,
and marine environments [
]. The aim of this sample
bank is to collect, prepare, store, and supply specimens for
a variety of tasks in order to provide information for
updating environmental agendas.
At the present time, the Swedish ESB stores specimens
on 260,000 organisms. Approximately, 8,000–9,000
specimens are collected annually. The Swedish monitoring
programs are tightly linked to banking and monitoring, and
3,500 specimens are consumed annually to investigate time
trends, spatial monitoring, and screening of new substances.
In concert with ESB activities, the Swedish EPA
established a program in 1989 for the bio-monitoring of top
marine predators. This program aims to monitor the
population, reproduction, development, and health status of
three types of seals and a white-tailed sea eagle. To support
this program, the ESB stores tissues and organ samples
from these animals. The Swedish ESB is also currently
collecting plants, mosses, sediments, sludge, and human
Lessons taught by the use of ESB specimens in modern environmental problems
The ESBs have become an essential part of the
infrastructure of modern environmental sciences and
decisionmaking and have played key roles in a wide range of
aspects related to the environmental sciences, such as (1)
evaluations of governmental environmental policy-making
and regulations; (2) as a resource for animal health
evaluation; (3) as research tools to investigate time trends in
ecosystems; (4) detection of newly emerging chemicals in
time trends; (5) validations of computer models for
environmental phenomena; (6) source identification of
contaminants; (7) as a tool for food safety; (8) evaluation of
genetic selection pressure due to environmental changes.
Here, we briefly outline the roles of modern ESBs in recent
It is known that, contrary to the case with organochlorine
compounds, the use of diphenylethers (PBDEs) increased in
the European Union (EU) during the 1980s. These products
were widely used as flame retardants, especially in polymers
used in electronics and textiles. Similar to the
organochlorine compounds, PBDEs were found in ecological biota [
Thus, the first screening was conducted using archived
breast milk samples in 1997 [
], and the first
astonishing evidence that emerged revealed an exponential
increase in PBDEs in Swedish breast milk from 1972 to 1997
. This increasing trend of PBDEs in human breast milk
] and serum [
] was subsequently confirmed in
several other countries.
The unique feature of our sampling design is that serum
and duplicate food samples were collected from the same
person. This enabled us to obtain definitive evidence that
dietary intakes of PBDEs estimated from duplicate food
samples in 1995 did not differ from those collected in 1980
], while PBDE levels in serum were significantly higher
in 1995 than in 1980 [
]. These results suggest the
importance of inhalation as a primary route of exposure.
The initial alarming evidence generated by Swedish
researchers showed the importance of continuous
monitoring using breast milk [
] and raised concerns
internationally, resulting in new regulations in many countries,
since PBDEs are suspected to have a variety of toxic
effects on wildlife and humans [
Perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoate
Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate
(PFOA) are two classes of chemicals that have been used in
a variety of applications, such as in lubricants, paints,
cosmetics, and fire-fighting foams. The former has been an
important perfluorinated surfactant, but in 2002, after
50 years of production, The 3M company phased out its
manufacture. Once released into the environment, PFOS is
postulated to be stable and persistent due to its resistance to
degradation in ecological systems and its bioconcentration
in food webs. As postulated, PFOS and PFOA were found
in a variety of wildlife [
]. In Japan, nationwide
surveys have demonstrated high-level contamination of PFOS
in an airport and extremely intense PFOA contamination in
Osaka Bay and the Kanzaki River [
There have been few studies on PFOS and PFOA levels
in humans. Data from early studies in the USA demonstrate
that PFOS and PFOA serum levels have not changed over
the past 20 years, although they did increase up to the
In 2004, we investigated the time trend and special
distribution of PFOS and PFOA in Japan using specimens
stocked in the Kyoto University Human Specimen Bank
]. The analyses revealed an exponential increase in
serum PFOA concentrations in Japan from 1980 to 2000,
while PFOS levels reached a plateau during that time
(Fig. 1, cited from Harada and Koizumi ). Experiments
to reconstruct time trends and spatial differences have been
made in China [
] and other countries and have confirmed
increasing levels over the past 30 years [
In our previous studies, we had found that there was a
local emission source of PFOA in the Osaka region [
]. The human serum levels of PFOA in the Osaka region
were significantly higher than those in other regions .
We thus conducted a study to determine to what extent
dietary exposure can explain the serum levels in residents
of a highly PFOA-contaminated area (Osaka) and a
noncontaminated area (Sendai) by duplicate food samples and
paired serum samples stocked in the Kyoto University
Human Specimen Bank [
]. The result revealed that the
dietary route, including drinking water, cannot explain the
high levels of serum PFOA in Osaka residents, suggesting
that inhalation should also be taken into account when
explaining excess PFOA exposures. These results showed
the usefulness of paired sampling of food duplicates and
blood samples to reconstruct human exposures.
It should be mentioned that there are several reports on
the decline of PFOA and PFOA concentrations in human
blood following the withdrawal of production of PFOA and
PFOS by the 3M Company [
]. We are currently
planning to test whether such declines are global trends or
There have also been several studies that have
reconstructed long-term exposures to persistent organic
compounds other than routine monitoring substances, such as
PCBs and organochlorine pesticides or insecticides. For
example, there is a report on phthalate [
Future perspectives of ESB functions
Environmental specimen banks have become an essential
part of the fundamental research infrastructure for
environmental sciences. In the next 20 years, further breakthroughs
in technologies will occur. In terms of environmental
studies, two of these will have a large impact. The first one is a
technology which enables us to analyze isotopic separation,
and the second is a high-throughput pyrosequencing
technology. Those advances in technologies will create new
functions for ESBs.
Fine isotopic profiling
13C and 14C are natural isotopes that are incorporated in CO2
by plants. Labeled isotopes will be transformed to glucose
via photosynthesis in plants. However, photosynthetic
enzymes prefer to utilize 12C and radioactive isotope 14C
will be degraded to 14N in fossil fuels. Thus, the greatest
anthropogenic source of CO2 production, i.e., the
incineration of fossil fuels, will yield 13C- or 14C-depleted CO2. This
in turn results in the production of 12C glucose and other
biological products. Accordingly, 13C versus 12C or 14C
versus 12C ratios in diets or human compositions are variable
according to the extent to which anthropogenic CO2 was
absorbed in recent years [
]. Other isotopic analyses
also give us interesting information. For example, lead from
a smelter emission from a local smelter plant had 206Pb
versus 207Pb ratios of 0.993, which is significantly smaller
than the ratio in natural lead . Such mineralogical
signatures will provide information for identifying emission
sources in transboundary contaminant transfers. Isotopic
ratios of 206Pb and 204Pb have given a clear demarcation for
the separation of geochemical signatures of authoritarian
lead from other lead [
]. However, such clear signatures are
now becoming less clear [
]. In terms of lead measured in
Chinese studies, there are several overlapping geochemical
signatures of isotopic ratios. Thus, the dominance of coal
combustion as a source of lead has made it difficult to
perform geological identification of the sources in China [
In the next few decades, isotopic analysis linked with
the banked samples will provide a new area of research for
In recent times, many genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) have become commercially available in many
countries. The rapid progress of GMOs has enabled the
conferring of new characteristics, such as herbicide
tolerance, resistance to insects, among others into plant
genomes. The foreign pieces of DNA consist of a
transcription promoter, a coding sequence, and an expression
terminator. Examples of transgenic plants include soybeans
and maize. In recent years there has been an ongoing
debate on the risks associated with the introduction of
GMOs into agriculture. Consequently, research evaluating
the effects of GMOs has become increasingly important.
Such GMO assessments are carried out by detecting
inserted foreign DNA in transgenic plants. DNA is the
preferred analyte for both raw ingredients and processed
food. A long-term time trend of the environmental fate of
foreign DNA needs to be traced using food samples.
The testing of samples in specimen banks will be very
informative in determining such long-term trends.
Ecological samples are especially useful when GMOs are
being monitored—i.e., the ecological fate and influences of
GMOs on ecological biota can be assessed rigorously [
In particular, rapid advances in high-throughput
sequencing technology enable large-scale sequencing without any
prior assumptions, and horizontal or vertical transmission
of the genetic elements of genetically engineered genomes
can be traced.
Another monitoring protocol would be to investigate the
selection pressure posed by global environmental changes.
Rapid environmental changes will increase natural
selection pressures and induce alterations at genome levels, as
previously reported [
]. Such effects can be tested by real
biota samples collected over the long term. Ecological
environmental specimen banks are suitable for conducting
In the last 20 years, ESBs have emerged as part of the
fundamental research infrastructure required for
environmental sciences. In their early phase of development,
ESBs were expected to monitor local ecological or human
exposures. The expansion of environmental problems
on both geographical and time scales has resulted in
ESBs differentiating into purpose-oriented groups, with
some becoming more oriented to the ecological
environment while others trending towards human exposure
The increase in environmental problems has led to a
need for global environmental monitoring. Increases in the
demands for ESBs now require that sample exchanges,
supplies, banking and other relevant activities associated
with ESBs be standardized by an internationally accredited
guideline. Such guidelines, including those on legal issues,
ethical issues (especially for human samples), and technical
issues, have recently been proposed [
Acknowledgments This project is supported primarily by a
grantin-aid for Health Sciences Research from the Ministry of Health,
Labor, and Welfare of Japan (H15-Chemistry-004), The Hitachi
Environment Foundation (2007) and the Japan Science and
Technology Agency (1300001, 2008-2010).
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