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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

European Leadership on Fundamental Molecular Biology Research

Another back story to the June 4 post on important new work on proteins that bind to mRNA. The back story is the umbrella research group – the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a striking example of why molecular biology is racing forward (and why the U.S. acts foolishly when there are cuts to funding for fundamental research in molecular biology.) The EMBL web site tells the story of its creation and ongoing work – excerpted below are portions of pages here, and here. One can also follow EMBL on Facebook – its pages actually are informative.

"The European Molecular Biology Laboratory was the idea of prominent scientists such as the American physicist and molecular biologist Leo Szilárd and Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson and John C. Kendrew. Their goal was to create a CERN-like supranational research centre to redress the balance in the strongly US-dominated field of molecular biology.

The founding contract of this centre of excellence was signed in July 1974 on a basis of an intergovernmental treaty of nine European countries plus Israel. Since then, the number of member states has increased progressively, until Luxembourg became the twentieth member in 2007, and Australia joined as an associate member in 2008.


EMBL was set up in order to promote molecular biology across Europe, and to provide an attractive alternative to the United States as a workplace for Europe’s leading young molecular biologists. To accomplish this, EMBL has pursued five major missions:

Basic Research in Molecular Biology

Research at EMBL is focussing on a central strategic goal: the fundamental understanding of basic biological processes in model organisms. In the first decades after the EMBL was established, molecular biology was a reductionist science consisting of many sub-disciplines. Today, in the post-genomic era, we need to study and understand biological phenomena and systems in their full complexity, in terms of the sequence and functions of the genomes of organisms. This requires a commitment to interdisciplinary collaborative research and critical mass in a variety of disciplines. Over the last decade EMBL has been preparing itself for this challenge and is well positioned to meet it. It is recognised for excellence in structural biology, biochemistry, developmental biology, cell biology, and computational biology. Through its past and current Scientific Programmes, EMBL has developed an integrative, interdisciplinary structure that is ideally suited to tackle the challenge that lies ahead for the Life Sciences: understanding complex biological systems.

Technology and Instrumentation

Instrument and technology development have a long history at EMBL. Some of the first experiments carried out in the Laboratory involved the adaptation of radiation from a synchrotron source for use with biological material. Today, virtually all X-ray crystallography utilizes synchrotron radiation. Other areas of instrument development include DNA sequencing, cell fractionation, light and electron microscopy methods, mass spectrometry of proteins, X-ray imaging plates, synchrotron beam-lines and automated cell micro injectors. An area of prolific current activity is in the development of software and databases for the life sciences.

Facilities and Services

The most widely used services provided by EMBL are the various biological databases constructed, organized and run by the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton. Currently over 1 Million different users consult these databases each year, seeking information on anything from DNA sequences, protein structures, gene expression profiles, human genetic polymorphism or even comparative analyses of entire genomes. At two of its sites, Hamburg and Grenoble, EMBL provides access to world-leading sources of X-ray and neutron radiation, to hundreds of users from the structural biology community per year. As technologies allow biologists to follow molecular events inside cells, or even organisms, in real time, the Advanced Light Microscopy Facility (ALMF) of EMBL in Heidelberg is the centre of a series of nodes throughout Europe, to which biologists can come to both learn about and use the most appropriate current technique to approach their specific experimental problem. Other, smaller facilities include those devoted to mass spectrometry, microarray technologies, electron microscopy, DNA sequencing and protein production.

Teaching and Training

The multifaceted training programme of EMBL is world-renowned and makes the Laboratory a true meeting place for biologists in Europe, "a place for the young" in Kendrew’s phrase. It includes:

The degree-granting EMBL International PhD Programme

Training of postdoctoral fellows in an interdisciplinary and international setting

Mentoring of young faculty as they establish their first independent group

Training of external visitors through research collaborations, use of facilities, as well as through practical courses and conferences."

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