Annual Report 2021

A year of exceptional life science research, services, training, industry collaboration, and integration of European life science research.

We’ve all heard the saying that ‘change is the only constant in life’, and one might even add a corollary that the success of an organism – or of an organisation – can be measured in the way it responds to that change. During a worldwide pandemic that provided a multitude of changes with accompanying limitations, EMBL not only rose to challenges, but also transformed them into new opportunities.

When I reflect on the year, I am struck by the trailblazing nature of our staff who supported each other and have been part of many impressive initiatives, within EMBL and in collaboration with scientists in academia and industry in our member states. It is because of their unrivalled enthusiasm that we have continued to successfully carry out EMBL’s five missions in research, service, training, innovation and translation, and integrating European life sciences. 

Read the full foreword here

woman dressed in black stands at glass railing
Edith Heard, EMBL Director General. Credit: Kinga Lubowiecka/EMBL

Mission 1: Research

To perform fundamental research in molecular biology

As Europe’s leading life science organisation, EMBL continued its tradition of carrying out cutting-edge molecular biology research in 2021. With a razor-sharp focus on exploring the fundamental biology of living organisms, EMBL’s research groups and units uncovered novel insights into embryonic development, infectious disease spread, protein folding mechanisms, biochemical pathways, the human microbiome, and much, much more. With 806 publications and 449 grants to support research, services, and training activities, EMBL researchers continue to understand life across scales.

“Biology is entering an exciting new era, and EMBL scientists are paving the way.”

Pavel Tomancak, Senior Research Group Leader at Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Director of the CEITEC Consortium; PhD work at EMBL 1995–1999

More than a ‘gut feeling’

EMBL researchers significantly advanced our understanding of the human gut microbiome this year, uniting skills across disciplines and generating new tools and methods to circumvent technical challenges. Their results inform research in other microbial communities around the world and pave the way for better therapeutics and improved diagnostics.

Illustration of a community of bacteria. Pills represent an antibiotic that can be used to treat an infection, and a second drug that could protect many gut bacteria from antibiotics.

“EMBL perfectly illustrates Louis Pasteur’s words: ‘Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world’.” 

Jean-Paul Chidiac, EMBL Human Resources Recruitment Team Lead

Artificial intelligence revolutionises microscopy

From using artificial neural nets to elevate biological image analysis to applying machine learning to probe organoid cultures, AI-associated techniques contributed significantly to EMBL’s microscopy-based research activities. 

Neuronal connections

From new insights into visual processing to the nervous system of a marine worm, EMBL’s research in 2021 covered a wide range of neuroscience topics.

“EMBL’s support to life scientists is like that of a trusted old friend. Our research here counts on that quality support synonymous with EMBL Services.”

Ramesh Pillai, Professor at the University of Geneva; Group Leader at EMBL, 2006-2016

Mission 2: Services

To offer vital services to scientists in EMBL member states and beyond

In 2021, EMBL completed construction of its Imaging Centre, creating a hub for advanced technologies at the forefront of illuminating what we can understand about life’s smallest building blocks. Two independent reports validated the economic value and impact that EMBL’s experimental services and data resources provide to their users in EMBL member states and beyond. EMBL’s experimental services enabled many researchers from all over the world to carry out their scientific experiments in 2021. EMBL-EBI saw service requests on its website jump from 82 million to 107 million per day. 

For us, 2021 was about improving large data handling. The Mesoscopic Imaging Facility set up virtual machines that can process terabytes of data remotely — always adapting to meet user and project needs.”  

Gopi Shah, Project Manager, Advanced Mesoscopy Applications, EMBL Barcelona

EMBL’s state-of-the-art Imaging Centre welcomed its first users in 2021. In doing so, it built upon a longstanding reputation for imaging expertise, which extends to new methods development, advanced microscopy training, and services.

EMBL Imaging Centre: services and technologies for all your imaging needs

Pink and blue dominate a blurry image against a black background that is actually a global image of a 30-day-old Octopus vulgaris

More EMBL service highlights

Whether its chemical biology, multi-omics, gene editing, X-ray beamlines, or myriad microscopy services, EMBL’s core facilities and services supported the advancement of molecular biology during  an active 2021.

“EMBL provides fantastic training opportunities. The training setup and collaborative approach translates into excellent courses at the forefront of methodology.”

Malte Paulsen, Head of Operations at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine, University of Copenhagen; Head of EMBL’s Flow Cytometry Core Facility, 2015–2020

Mission 3: Training

To train scientists, students, and visitors at all levels

EMBL prides itself as not only being the place where cutting-edge molecular biology research is done, but also as the nurturing organisation where future world leaders in molecular biology get their start. Its people-first approach manifests itself in its many training programmes that focus on scientific capacity building and growth. Despite in-person training events being down in 2021, EMBL trained 9,726 people via its virtual courses and conferences, hired 63 new PhD students and 77 new postdocs, and welcomed 579 scientific visitors.

“To address global challenges, we need the combined ingenuity of scientists from different fields. EMBL’s training equips our fellows with the skills needed to lead research and innovation in multi-disciplinary settings.”

Monika Lachner, Head of Internal Scientific Training and Dean of Graduate Studies, EMBL International Centre for Advanced Training (EICAT)

EMBL welcomes first generation of ARISE fellows

EMBL’s Career Accelerator for Research Infrastructure Scientists Programme, known as ARISE, provides fellowships to promote technology development in the life sciences and trains technology developers and engineers to lead research infrastructures and services. The first group of ARISE fellows joined EMBL in 2021 with a variety of research backgrounds and expertise, such as Sheng Liu, who is interested in super-resolution microscopy for structural cell biology at EMBL Heidelberg. 

Female scientist stands in dark room with instrumentation

“EMBLEM and EMBL’s Genomics Core Facility helped our company gather a first dataset in 2015 — catalytic for our seed investment. This year, we’ve launched our first product.”

Fay Christodoulou, Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Miroculus; PhD work at EMBL, 2005–2009

Mission 4: Innovation & Translation

To engage in technology transfer and industry relations

EMBL is well known for its research, training, and services, and those strengths are what also make it a perfect industry partner and breeding ground for research that sows the seeds for potential technology transfer. EMBLEM, EMBL’s tech transfer partner, managed a portfolio that includes 473 concluded licence and collaboration agreements. As new partnerships were formed, others continued to expand.

“Our partnership with EMBL on the AlphaFold Protein Structure Database has been extraordinarily fruitful. It’s been amazing to see the impact the database has already had on biological research, and we are very much looking forward to further collaborations.”

Demis Hassabis, DeepMind Founder and CEO

Innovation rising

In 2021, EMBL scientists joined forces with industry scientists in several partnerships that furthered research and spurred innovative solutions to tackle human disease, and increase biotechnology and agricultural impacts. 

Graphic representation with mix of molecules, dna representation and other biologic symbols

“EMBL played a crucial role in setting up the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Spain. The initial partnership gave the institute a quality vote of confidence that supported its ambition of becoming a top international research organisation.”

Luis Serrano Pubul, Director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona; Head of Structural & Computational Biology Unit, EMBL Heidelberg, 2001–2005

Mission 5: Integrating European Life Sciences

To foster collaboration between scientific communities in Europe and around the world

Internationality and collaboration are vital aspects of EMBL’s activities, and EMBL works to establish links and initiate joint projects between scientists in Europe and abroad. Collaborative research, shared infrastructures as well as open science and knowledge sharing are important investments for the future. With a strong focus on scientific excellence, and through the trusted networks of EMBL’s member states as well as European and global partner institutes, EMBL forms the basis for successful multi-level science diplomacy.

“The collaboration with EMBL confirms the importance of research networks among excellent institutions to contribute to the same quest for innovation and to share resources.

Giorgio Metta, Scientific Director of Italian Institute of Technology

Giorgio Metta

Better together

As an intergovernmental research organisation, EMBL can combine its own strengths in research, services, and training with capabilities across its member states. This creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts to advance life science research and innovation in Europe and beyond. Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) between EMBL and institutions in member states help deepen relationships. Throughout 2021, EMBL expanded its portfolio of institutional collaborations in the lead up to the start of its new Programme, ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’.

EMBL and CNR flags alongside Italian flag

A portrait image Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys, Chairman of the board of the VU Life Sciences Center; Edith Heard, EMBL Director General; Plamena Markova, EMBL Head of International Relations; Prof. Gintaras Valinčius, Director of Vilnius University Life Sciences Center

The importance of member state engagement

Between facing an ongoing pandemic and preparing for EMBL’s next five-year strategic programme, EMBL and its member states met virtually and in-person to help position the Laboratory for the future.

planet earth with artistic interpretations of molecular imagery

Life Sciences at COP26

As part of the preparation for EMBL’s new Programme to study life ‘in context’, it published a white paper on molecular biology’s role in the Green Recovery and attended COP26 as an Observer shortly afterwards.

“Cutting-edge science shines through excellent operational support and infrastructure. Building the perfect environment for science was what I aimed for at EMBL, and this is also vital in my current role.”

 Matthias Haury, Chief Operating Officer, Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience; as EMBL’s EICAT Coordinating Manager from 2006–2010, Matthias was instrumental in building the EMBL Corporate Partnership Program and in the planning and opening of EMBL’s Advanced Training Centre


In 2021, EMBL’s administrative and operations teams accelerated the work that keeps EMBL running at a notable pace and level of excellence. New sustainability and equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies showed the importance of supporting initiatives that improve how EMBL conducts science. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, so too did the hard work of EMBL staff through remote work and creative solutions to minimise disruption to EMBL missions.

“Modernising service delivery to the EMBL community is our aim. Moving this forward as a collective team effort with colleagues across sites means success for all of us at EMBL.”

Lena Reunis, Head of Operations Management Team

“The Staff Association has been actively involved in shaping an EDI strategy to ensure a workplace that is inclusive for everyone. After all, diverse, inclusive labs capture a broader range of perspectives, which not only makes for better workplaces, but for better science.” 

Susi Power, Programme Officer at EMBO, EDI representative for the Staff Association

Reviews of EMBL units in 2021

EMBL Grenoble building in the sun

EMBL Grenoble

EMBL Grenoble was reviewed. You can read the pdf review and response here 

EMBL-EBI South building

EMBL-EBI Research

EMBL-EBI Research was reviewed. You can read the pdf review and response here 

With 27 member states, laboratories at six sites across Europe and thousands of scientists and engineers working together, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is a powerhouse of biological expertise. EMBL is an intergovernmental organisation, headquartered in Heidelberg, and was founded in 1974 with the mission of promoting molecular biology research in Europe, training young scientists, and developing new technologies.

EMBL currently employs more than 1800 people in Barcelona​​GrenobleHamburgHeidelbergEMBL-EBI Hinxton (near Cambridge), and Rome.

Publishing hundreds of research articles and hosting dozens of conferences every year, EMBL is driving visionary fundamental research, and training Europe’s future scientific talent.