Reflections for the future during EMBL’s 50th anniversary year
EMBL’s tradition of curiosity-driven research, its links to many scientific disciplines, and its tradition of collaborative discovery provide the perfect combination to address global challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss.
From the very beginning – when the idea arose in the 1960s and 1970s for an intergovernmental laboratory for life sciences research and training to be set up – the European Molecular Biology Laboratory was destined to be a product of, and a leader in, collaborative, multidisciplinary research.
As Sir John Kendrew, one of EMBL’s founders and its first Director General, put it:
The special feature of molecular biology is that it is highly interdisciplinary… this field demands the cooperation of many disciplines and techniques, some biological, some chemical and some physical; and, more important, it demands the closest mutual interaction between people interested in the same problems but viewing them against diverse scientific backgrounds.
Over the past 50 years, that approach to our science has led to critical, foundational discoveries:
We can begin to understand how an organism’s body plan is mapped out and how it is built up from a single cell.
We understand how RNAs can provide spatial information, and how proteins can fold in different ways for different purposes.
We’ve witnessed how molecular machines allow genomes to be packaged and expressed. Such work all requires a physical and chemical understanding of molecules, the building blocks of life, and of cells, the units of an organism.
We’ve established powerful databases that can store and organise research outputs and allow for open, accessible science.
We’ve developed technologies that allow biological specimens to be examined in the greatest detail ever.
And this level of world-class work is only possible because EMBL provides a climate that encourages a diversity of scientific approaches and in which scientists can explore bold ideas that lead to innovations in a collaborative way across disciplines. This not only benefits fundamental research and new discoveries in biology but also helps inform potential solutions for some of society’s biggest challenges, whether for human or planetary health. EMBL’s current scientific programme ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’ aims to do exactly this.
EMBL’s current programme seeks to understand life in its natural context, recognising that life on earth doesn’t exist in isolation. Through interdisciplinary approaches, EMBL is the right place to embark on a new era of molecular research to more fully understand ecosystems at mechanistic levels, organisms as they acclimate and adapt to their environment, and the changing biodiversity at multiple scales in time and space. It is an ambitious programme, but it’s also essential to make discoveries appropriate for finding solutions to unprecedented climate changes. A perfect example is our Planetary Biology flagship project Traversing European Coastlines (TREC). TREC spent most of 2023 not only doing field research but also building important scientific partnerships and conducting outreach. This fieldwork resumes in February and will continue for another five months.
EMBL’s collaborative multidisciplinarity makes it one of the most vibrant research organisations in the world. A unique combination of enthusiastic talent, the quest for new discoveries, and missions that also involve training and infrastructure and services provision benefits the scientific community not only in our 29 member states, but also beyond.
In 2024, EMBL marks 50 years of this tradition of excellence. Consequently, we celebrate EMBL’s past accomplishments, recognising the many staff and students who have come before us and who make our current and future work possible.
A time for reflection
EMBL has always been at the frontier of cutting-edge, life science research.
In the 1980s, Jacques Dubochet and Alasdair McDowall discovered that flash-freezing proteins in liquid ethane could preserve their structure during microscopy. This advance laid the groundwork for the rise of cryo-EM and brought Dubochet and two other scientists the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017. Today, researchers like those in Julia Mahamid’s EMBL Heidelberg group, have used the same techniques to observe a key molecular machine in action: bacterial RNA polymerase, which turns an organism’s genetic code into RNA and protein – fundamental information to guide tomorrow’s understanding of how to treat disease.
Even earlier, in the 1970s, EMBL group leaders Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus performed large-scale genetic screens to look at mutations affecting the patterning of early fruit fly development. These mutations were mapped to 120 genes, providing a blueprint for our understanding of many fundamental developmental processes. Most of these same genes are now known to be conserved in humans and are essential for understanding human diseases, such as cancer. This foundational work would later also be recognised with a Nobel Prize in 1995 “for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development”.
Partnerships have also factored into EMBL’s ability to innovate. In addition to our six host sites in five different countries, partnerships allow us to be greater than the sum of our parts. For example, in the context of the partnership that includes EMBL Grenoble and the European synchrotron ESRF, EMBL scientists have developed and advanced cutting-edge crystallography technologies that shed light on the structure and function of complex molecular machines, like RNA-based viruses. By collaborating with the manufacturer Arinax, EMBL researchers and engineers also helped commercialise pioneering instrumentation that automates sample handling and eases the research process. Other partnerships enable us to help countries model their national institutes on EMBL, thus creating a network of closely interlinked centres of excellence across Europe with a joint vision to train and empower the best international talent.
In another recent example of a fruitful collaboration, EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute’s (EMBl-EBI) PDBe data resource served as a perfect training ground for Google DeepMind’s revolutionary AI system. AlphaFold has produced accurate predictions for the structure of nearly all proteins known to science. Because of our involvement, these predictions from all species, including humans, plants, bacteria, and animals, are freely and openly available to the world. This opens up new research avenues across the life sciences and will help develop solutions for global challenges. EMBL continues to enable scientific revolutions, and in my opinion, providing AlphaFold to the world is one of the latest and greatest tools to accelerate knowledge.
These brief glimpses into EMBL’s history are merely representative of work intertwined with missions in research, training, scientific services, innovation and translation, as well as the integration of European life sciences. EMBL’s role is central to science, and many of today’s global challenges demand our perspective of openness and collaboration – now more than ever.
A time for action
Today, the news reports how “our planet is burning”, “biodiversity is collapsing”, and that we are in “the Anthropocene”. It is depressing to imagine how human actions have accelerated these changes seemingly outside our control, and that natural adaptation cannot keep up. But science offers hope and potential solutions. The pandemic is only the most recent evidence of the unique responsiveness afforded by today’s scientific research.
Likewise, EMBL is rising up to these challenges to our planet’s health, systematically integrating sampling expeditions and in situ fieldwork with laboratory analyses of organisms in genetically and environmentally controlled settings as well as in new model systems. Our organisation is also agile, able to adapt rapidly, thanks to our dynamic scientists and supportive member states that allow for a unified, collaborative European scientific front at all levels – from working with human cohorts to field sampling projects through to public engagement and policymaking.
In keeping with our founding principles, EMBL can facilitate European science towards finding solutions to preserve or restore ecosystems, ensure pandemic preparedness, and avoid the spread of microbial resistance.
Today, we have an impressive number of nodes of collaboration within member states and beyond. I am very excited to see how our work alongside these partners will help shape the scientific advances of tomorrow and allow us to address global challenges together.
A time for celebration
EMBL’s 50th anniversary allows us to reflect on our history and our future, rich with people committed to our work here who continually make sure our five missions are in fast gear. And even when we face challenges – a pandemic, European economic changes, and the growing pains of expanding our mission – together we make the world a better place. There are many ways to celebrate half a century! The centrepiece of our celebration is a scientific symposium, ‘From atoms to ecosystems – a new era in life sciences’, on 4-5 July, which one can still register to attend virtually.
Please take a look at EMBL’s new web pages devoted to celebrating EMBL’s 50th anniversary, as well as our expanded history website intended to draw attention to EMBL’s past. The stories from our past captured there are equally relevant to our ability to shape the future.
In 2015, we established an EMBL Archive, and my hope is that EMBL alumni and staff will continue sharing stories, photos, and oral histories with this very young archive, so that we can likewise keep deepening our appreciation for EMBL’s past. I encourage you to reach out to our archive and records manager, Maria Papanikolaou, at firstname.lastname@example.org, with contributions of this kind.
But as I’ve noted, this year’s celebration is also very much about looking forward. Throughout the year, you will see articles in EMBL’s newsfeed about how current staff are making history today and how our history has shaped current research.
EMBL’s past is rich with accomplishments and wonderful memories, but the future will show that we have many more stories still to be written.