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photo collage with scientist, M&M candies, Folgers coffee, ethanol fuel pumpSince 1944, MRI has been
serving clients and the community

One Breakthrough at a Time

With the decoding of the human genome, opportunities have increased for MRI to become involved in the field of life sciences. The Institute created a new center for proteomics research, which is collaborating with major research centers around the country to study protein structure and function. Current life science programs range from pharmaceutical development to microbiological forensics, toxicology, and virology. Work in the field of national security and defense increased after September 11, 2001. MRI opened a new laboratory in Rockville, Maryland, to provide air sample analysis for a variety of biological threats. And we perfected an advanced air sampler to collect trace levels of DNA from anthrax spores and other biological agents.

ECG/heart rate chart graphic The variability of a person’s heart rate can be used to gauge the need for life-saving intervention in times of injury.  However, until now, accurate determination of heart rate variability (HRV) has required controlled conditions followed by hours of data processing. In 2005, MRI developed software to accurately and continuously analyze a soldier’s HRV, even while active (which creates difficult background “noise”). This advance will help field commanders determine which of their combatants need immediate medical attention or evacuation.


For what's new, visit our 2007 News Releases, Annual Report and Innovations Newsletters


biohazard symbol In the wake of a toxic spill or chemical attack, knowing which areas are contaminated and which are not is an important part of getting operations back to normal. MRI, as a subcontractor to Hamilton Sundstrand for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, helped engineer a mobile laboratory that can go virtually anywhere and quickly analyze, with tremendous precision, any type of sample (such as plant, soil, water, air) for contaminants. This state-of-the-art system is called PHILIS, for Portable High-Throughput Integrated Laboratory System, and is designed to process 500 samples per day.

NREL solar technologies The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver continues its breakthroughs in solar technology, achieving a record 37.9 percent efficiency in photovoltaic cell. (Percent efficiency indicates the percentage of available sunlight that a PV cell converts to electricity.) This increase in efficiency will help drive down the cost of using photovoltaic technology to produce energy, moving it closer to mainstream power production. (MRI manages NREL for the U.S. Department of Energy.)
ethanol fuel pump

NREL and DuPont have teamed up to develop the technology needed to produce ethanol from the cob, stalks, and leaves of corn plants. The goal is to convert these into a mixture of sugars using a series of chemical and biochemical processes, then economically ferment those sugars into ethanol, an alternative to petroleum. The process will also produce useful chemicals and electrical power from renewable sources.

green field In newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union, MRI worked as expert subcontractor to Bechtel National, Inc., and with local scientists to safely disassemble pathogen research and production facilities. Some were converted to constructive research laboratories, one will be used to monitor the environment for dangerous human and animal pathogens, and one will be completely dismantled and returned to a green field. MRI designed and implemented the demanding sampling strategy to ensure that the area would be safe for human habitation and agricultural use and also helped develop and install the electronic surveillance system for environmental pathogens.

golved hands working with sea sponges Scientists from MRI’s Florida laboratory oversaw the retrieval of sponges from the frigid waters of Antarctica, bringing back those they felt might produce biologically active compounds that could help create cures or treatments for serious diseases. In the laboratory, MRI staff chemically screened the sponge samples to identify culturable organisms, then used a DNA fingerprinting technique to find organisms similar to those that produce natural chemicals with curative abilities. In the case of cancer, this might be a natural toxin that could kill cancer cells without damaging other tissue.

Widening a highway to handle increased traffic is an expensive and often impractical undertaking, and sometimes highway departments choose instead to add a lane to the existing road by restriping or converting the shoulder to a usable lane. But what are the safety consequences? MRI studied the number and type of accidents before and after lane conversion on many types of urban freeways in California to reach their conclusions: converting the existing roadway from 4 to 5 lanes increased the number of accidents by 10 percent, and conversion from 5 to 6 lanes increased accidents somewhat less. MRI traffic engineers and statisticians received an award from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 for this valuable research.

Roy Swiger with multiplexing equipment We call it multiplexing. It’s a whole new approach to the (up to now) tedious process of testing for multiple biological pathogens. With multiplexing, a single sample, in just one pass, can be tested for several biological targets. The new technique, developed by MRI biologists, reduces labor, allows high throughput, and can be used with many analytical techniques. It has been applied to monitoring the air in government buildings and also put to use in the health and agriculture industries. MRI is working with Luminex Corporation to develop a multiplexing strategy that can be used to test newborns and eliminate the threat of several serious diseases early on.

lab automationThe 1990s
With a new emphasis on global competition and the importance of bringing new technologies and products to market as quickly as possible, MRI again turned to opportunities within the private sector. This work ranged from drug development for pharmaceutical companies to automating high-precision laboratory processes. A world leader in thermoelectric technology, MRI provided cooling units for NASA astronauts on several space shuttle missions and designed units for U.S. Army helicopter pilots for Desert Storm.

Automatic Plate Repliction System MRI developed the Automatic Plate Repliction System (APRS), a fully automated component of the Aurora Ultra-High Throughput Screening System for drug discovery. The APRS transfers liquids to and from plates for screening candidate drug compounds. Its advanced robotics allow rapid and automated transfer, dilution, and distribution of compounds stored in 96-well and 384-well plates, and the system provides a ten-fold improvement over conventional screening methods. This greatly speeds the process of zeroing in on new, beneficial drug compounds.

SpinCon® air sampler MRI engineers developed a compact, highly efficient air sampler and named it SpinCon®. This versatile, portable device can sample air for a wide range of contaminants and was used to monitor the air for substances as diverse as rubber tire fragments in urban air to possible pathogens at a major political convention.

pilot with cooling system Army pilots had long suffered from the heat while operating their aircraft in desert or tropical conditions. MRI engineered a thermoelectric cooling system for flight personnel, which pumped chilled water from a compact cooling unit in the cockpit through a lightweight vest worn by pilots. MRI also supplied a version of this technology to NASA, who used it to cool their astronauts upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

MRI worked with the U.S. Army to develop better methods for destroying the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons and remediating the land that housed them. Engineers from MRI also led workshops for the Environmental Protection Agency to teach environmental managers about modeling, risk assessment, sampling, and analytical methods available for characterizing toxins in the air around heavily contaminated Superfund sites. MRI helped develop strategies for these complex cleanup efforts, where even typical remediation techniques like excavation and incineration could increase health risks.


wind turbinesThe 1980s
In the 1980s, MRI continued building on important environmental and energy work. These projects ranged from detecting pesticide levels in food to safely destroying hazardous waste; from creating electricity from sunlight to helping reduce the threat of global warming. In the area of biobehavioral science, our researchers studied how electromagnetic fields, such as those generated by our household appliances and power lines, affect human health. Other important work involved a cooperative program between the United States and Saudi Arabia in which MRI supervised construction of a solar-powered seawater desalination plant in Saudi Arabia.

scientist in cancer lab Since 1985, MRI has provided cancer researchers with pure standards that are unavailable from commercial sources. The National Cancer Institute Repository at MRI has supported a primary NCI goal of preventing human cancer initiated or promoted by chemicals. MRI has shipped more than 5,000 NCI Repository samples to researchers as far away as Russia, China, Korea, and Turkey without incurring a single health or safety problem.


researcher in boat pulling samples from waterThe 1970s
The 1970s brought new focus on the research areas of environment and energy. Our scientists conducted valuable work exploring natural resources, protecting the environment, and finding practical uses for new technology. In 1977, MRI won a Department of Energy contract to manage and operate the Solar Energy Research Institute. As the nation's leading center for renewable energy research, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (as the laboratory is now called) continues developing new energy technologies. Economic research ranged from assisting in the overhaul of several state criminal justice systems to conducting landmark studies of the national economic impact of R&D expenditures by NASA.

Environmental Toxicology Program researcher in lab MRI has provided sophisticated chemical analysis for the Environmental Toxicology Program, part of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, since 1972. MRI’s services help determine the toxicological profile of a wide range of environmental chemicals. Types of studies supported have included carcinogenesis, reproductive toxicology and fertility assessment, immunology, metabolism, and numerous special studies to protect the population’s health and well-being.

researcher taking emissions sample The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 established a 10-year schedule for EPA to set standards for all major sources of 189 toxic pollutants. MRI engineers and chemists worked with EPA’s Emission Measurement Center (now renamed the Measurement Technology Group) to develop national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants as well as performance standards. They have solved tricky problems in measuring emissions from industrial processes and have engineered innovative solutions for obtaining samples and taking measurements in difficult locations. MRI also advised on laboratory challenges and has helped set clear and practical standards for allowable emissions.


early researchers in labThe 1960s
By the 1960s, our client base had expanded greatly from regional industry to large government contracts. MRI entered the space race when in 1961 we conducted our first project for NASA. Out of this work came the development of many new devices and processes, including vaccines, hearing aids, transistors, and aircraft controls. Another large government client was the National Cancer Institute, for which we analyzed promising anti-cancer compounds (today we continue this work, along with analyzing anti-AIDS compounds). MRI also contracted with the Department of Defense, assisting with the safe destruction of the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons and supporting chemical warfare treaty negotiations.


The 1950searly candy coating photo
During the 1950s, MRI’s work was mostly for private industry. MRI built its current headquarters and added a field station for outdoor projects.

early coffeemaker Scientists at MRI perfected the coating process for M&M candies, developing a machine that could coat 3,300 pounds of chocolate centers every hour.

MRI created soluble coffee for J. A. Folger & Co. along with equipment that could automatically make and dispense hot coffee. The technology was a forerunner of today’s auto drip coffeemakers.


researchers in agricultural settingThe 1940s
Many of MRI’s initial projects emphasized chemistry and reflected Kansas City’s agricultural base. Our first major project (1946) involved converting ammonium nitrate to a usable fertilizer, enabling the conversion of war material factories in Kansas and Missouri to peacetime use. It also allowed for the expansion of new plants to keep up with demand for the highly usable fertilizer. Other early projects involved aircraft stability, high frequency electronics, and the recoilless rifle.


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