From the laboratory to nature: EMBL's new programme

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) has been around for nearly fifty years. In the future, it intends to adopt a new approach, which entails applying its expertise outside the laboratory and using the tools of modern molecular biology to explore complex problems such as the impact of climate change on ecosystems. This creates exciting opportunities for researchers to work together.

The recently opened EMBL Imaging Centre in Heidelberg also provides Swiss researchers with access to state-of-the-art electron and light microscopy.
Photo: Kinga Lubowiecka/EMBL

Switzerland is one of the ten founding members of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Established in 1974, this international research organisation is specialised in molecular biology. Today, the EMBL now has 28 member countries, which include the vast majority of EU member states as well as the United Kingdom, Israel, Montenegro and Switzerland. The EMBL is based in Heidelberg, Germany but its activities are spread out over six different locations: Heidelberg, Hamburg, Hinxton (near Cambridge), Grenoble, Barcelona and Monterotondo (near Rome). The organisation has 1,600 employees and has played a pivotal role in the rapid development of molecular biology over the past few decades. Today, molecular biology can no longer be considered a sub-discipline of biology, as its methods are now applied in all areas of life sciences and biomedical research.

The EMBL conducts cutting-edge research and has already produced three Nobel laureates, two men and one woman: in 1995, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, and Jacques Dubochet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017. The EMBL has also made considerable contributions to efforts to tackle COVID-19. It set up the international 'Covid Data Portal' in partnership with the European Commission and was actively involved in the development of one of the COVID-19 vaccines approved in Switzerland. It was the EMBL's laboratory in Hamburg that helped the company BioNTech to develop the lipid capsule technique used to deliver mRNA inside human cells.

Scientific programme for 2022-2026

Every five years, the EMBL establishes its scientific programme outlining its priorities and strategic objectives. The new five-year programme for 2022-2026 'Molecules to Ecosystems' was launched just recently. The new programme constitutes a departure from past programmes: the EMBL will now adopt a new approach, which can be described as 'Life in Context'. Currently, molecular biology research usually takes place under strictly standardised and controlled laboratory conditions. The organisms that are studied are usually model organisms, i.e. very uniform populations that have no contact with other living creatures. They are grown in Petri dishes, liquid cultures or cages and kept under constant temperature and always using the same energy sources. This controlled environment is intended to reduce complexity so that the results can be interpreted more easily.

A pilot expedition under the TREC research project to study the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems of Europe's coasts, lakes and rivers. Photo: Patrick Mueller/EMBL

The EMBL now wishes to apply its methods and expertise to a greater extent outside the Petri dish and the laboratory. Thanks to the new automated 'high throughput' methods and modern analytical approaches, large amounts of data can be collected and analysed (e.g. via machine learning). It has now become technically possible to conduct molecular biological research in a way that can shed light on complex environmental phenomena. This opens up new areas of research such as developing ways to adapt to climate change or the loss of biodiversity. New biomedical research approaches are also being developed, for example, to treat cancer or overcome resistance to antibiotics.

Exploring life outside the laboratory

The new programme aims to capture 'real life in outside world', hence the term 'Life in Context'. The EMBL seeks to contribute to a greater understanding of current and future challenges.

TREC (Tara-EMBL Coastal exploration) is a good example of how the EMBL will be moving its research out of the laboratory and into nature over the next few years. Here the aim is to study aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems of Europe's coasts, lakes and rivers. This project will record and molecularly characterise bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and animals. At the same time, chemicals that occur in these ecosystems will also be recorded in detail. Among other things, this will allow conclusions to be drawn about the influence of pollutants.

Importance of the new programme for Swiss researchers

Swiss researchers have been working with the EMBL since its inception. For example, they attend a wide range of courses the EMBL in Heidelberg or use EMBL's facilities (e.g. EMBL's databases or the recently commissioned Imaging Centre). Some Swiss researchers have spent several years at EMBL during their career.

The EMBL alone does not possess the necessary expertise to face the challenge of 'Life in Context' in a targeted manner. Thus, the new approach also offers interesting opportunities for researchers who do not traditionally work with the EMBL. For example, researchers specialised in environmental and natural sciences should find the new programme appealing.

Further information

Doris Wohlfender, SERI
Scientific Advisor
International Research Organisations Unit