I will soon be stepping down as the Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK, after more than eleven years, so it is timely to look back at the recent past and consider where LMB stands today.
LMB can justly claim to be the birthplace of molecular biology, at least in Europe, and it was established by eminent scientists with a complete dedication to science – many of whom were to win Nobel prizes (Francis Crick, Max Perutz, John Kendrew, Sydney Brenner, Aaron Klug, Fred Sanger and later César Milstein and others). It held a dominant position, pioneering some of the most basic methods of the field (X-ray crystallography, DNA sequencing, monoclonal antibodies), trained many international scientists and generated imitators and spin-offs (notably EMBL, founded by John Kendrew, and the Sanger Institute, founded by John Sulston). Most importantly, however, its founders established a way of doing science, at a high intellectual level, co-operatively and with a bold long-term vision, that has been maintained with surprising success over the years, helped by rather reliable core support from the Medical Research Council. Everyone, from student to senior scientist, including non-scientific staff, knows that our job is to make discoveries, and not trivial ones.
As Director, I have been lucky enough to be in post for three LMB Nobel prizes in chemistry. Michael Levitt’s share of the 2013 prize1 was for work done at LMB in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, long before I arrived in 1981. However, Venki Ramakrishnan’s share of the 2009 award2 for the ribosome structure was for work done since 2000, and although Richard Henderson’s share of the cryo-EM prize last year3 had its origins in the 1970s, the key work was done only in the last few years. Both prizes illustrate what LMB does best – long term ambitious projects that pushed the limits of what was then possible. The EM, in particular, required collaboration between physicists, programmers and biologists, and considerable persistence – even ten years ago the prospects of eventual success seemed pretty remote, but Richard was indefatigable. And he was right, of course – the bacterial ribosome X-ray structure that won Venki his prize took years of effort by a team of people, but one of his postdocs, Rebecca Voorhees, later did the mammalian equivalent by cryo-EM – with one day of data collection and a few weeks of computing. Since then what used to be impossible has become normal, and as with X-ray crystallography more than 50 years ago, LMB is playing a central role in a structural biology revolution.
A research institute is only as good as the people in it, and not all can win prizes. But we stick pretty much to the original model of finding the smartest people we can (often at a young age) and supporting them to do their best. This is not without challenges. Role models help, but there is also peer pressure, and very extensive reviews every five years. We admire a long term view, but there also has to be progress and achievement over the shorter scale.
The other recent big change was our move to a brand-new building five years ago, designed specifically to fit the needs of the LMB. Some were nervous at leaving the scene of past triumphs, but the old building was cramped and ageing, and within a few weeks most of us had forgotten what we had to put up with – the new building is a pleasure to work in, and offers great facilities. Indeed, the EM work would have been impossible without it.
Looking forward, there is still much support for molecular biology, but increasingly it is seen as a stimulus to economic growth. We need to acknowledge this, but not abandon the long-term vision that has been so successful. LMB is no stranger to economic exploitation, having started a number of companies and contributed extensively to the monoclonal antibody business. A few years ago the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca chose to move its global base to a few meters from our front door, and an impressive building is nearing completion. In the meantime, we have a joint fund with them to foster collaborations – but these are for basic science, not drug discovery. We have found that several companies appreciate this kind of interaction with cutting-edge research, and we can break down barriers and learn from each other to mutual advantage, without distorting our ambitious goals. It has been a very positive experience.
There are of course some challenges ahead. The Research Councils of the UK are being re-organised into a single entity called UK Research and Innovation, and the MRC, our employer and supporter for the last 56 years, will soon cease to exist as a legal entity – though it will continue as a brand within UKRI. There is no desire to disrupt institutions such as LMB, so hopefully after a period of adjustment it will be business as usual. Similarly, though it is hard to see any advantages for LMB in the UK leaving the EU, there does seem to be an acknowledgement that science is a truly international activity and needs to be maintained as such. The majority of scientists at LMB (and 9 of our 15 Nobel Laureates) were not born in the UK, and we are completely committed to remaining international. Our goal is to preserve everything that has proven so successful about LMB through the changes that lie ahead. I think we have every reason to be optimistic.