A cryobiologist studies the effects of low temperatures on living organisms and biological materials and systems. The term is a combination of the Greek words kyros, or cold, and bios, or life. A cryobiologist may be interested in how an organism stays warm in temperatures that are below normal or in suspended animation, among other topics. Cells, organs, and whole organisms can be studied by a cryobiologist, who experiments with temperatures ranging from the mildly hypothermic to the cryogenic or deep-freezing. Most cryobiologists are researchers for private companies or government agencies or teachers associated with major research universities.
As an applied science, cryobiology is mostly concerned with preservation and storage at low temperatures. The primary scientific society is the Society for Cryobiology, founded in 1964. The purpose of the society is to promote scientific research and understanding among cryobiologists and to disseminate their knowledge for the benefit of humanity.
There are many different topics of interest to a cryobiologist. Natural cryobiology is the study of how low temperatures affect insects, plants, and vertebrates. Some of these organisms have learned to survive temperatures below freezing by making biomolecules that act like anti-freeze. Cryobiologists may study how these biomolecules work and what practical and commercial applications they might have.
A branch of cryobiology that works to kill rather than preserve cells is cryosurgery. Cryosurgery treats diseases like warts, small skin cancers, and moles. The patient’s cells are exposed to very rapid cooling, often using liquid nitrogen. A cryobiologist may work with a cryosurgeon, studying how the ice crystals that form inside the targeted cells tear these cells apart.
Some cryobiologists specialize in cryopreservation, or the process by which cells and whole tissues are preserved in low temperatures. This technique is directly applicable to organ transplantation. These cryobiologists work to make freezing and thawing of organs for transplantation a safe and practical process that keeps donated tissues alive indefinitely. Cryopreservation is also used in fertility treatment as more and more people freeze and later use their sperm, eggs, and embryos.
Cryonics is another branch of cryobiology. This practice preserves organisms and people for future revival by storing them at a temperature so low that metabolism and decay are halted. The hope is that a problem beyond the current level of technology can be solved in the future. A cryobiologist may also be interested in combating frostbite or studying vitrification.
Cryobiology is a specialization that is not commonly offered at many undergraduate institutions. As a result, students usually major in biology for their bachelor’s degree and focus on cryobiology as graduate students. An additional undergraduate major in microbiology, biophysics, or biochemistry may be helpful. A cryobiologist typically requires a master’s or doctoral degree to secure a research or teaching position. A master’s degree can require an additional two years of coursework, while a doctoral degree adds another four to six.
Employment usually involves research for a private company or government organization. For example, an agency like the Red Cross may employ a cryobiologist to help improve the preservation of human organs for transplantation. Some cryobiologists undertake independent research as faculty members at universities.
Most of these scientists work in a laboratory environment with chemicals like liquid nitrogen or in cold climates. Competition for research positions and grants can be stiff, but most cryobiologists start working in the field while students employed as laboratory or research assistants. Cryobiologists should be able to work with teams as well as individually. As cryobiology is a rapidly changing field, a cryobiologist must always be aware of new research and advances.