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European Molecular Biology Laboratory

A bundle of nerves that relays information from touch receptors on the skin to the spinal cord and ultimately the brain, imaged with the new technique
A bundle of nerves that relays information from touch receptors on the skin to the spinal cord and ultimately the brain, imaged with the new technique (Credit: EMBL/L.Castaldi)

Since its founding in 1974, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) has sought to serve its member states by making fundamental discoveries in molecular biology that fuel a rich economy of knowledge, training researchers and research leaders at the leading-edge for academic and industrial research, as well as by developing new technologies that meet societal needs in the areas of medicine, agriculture, and ecology.

EMBL is Europe’s only intergovernmental organisation for life science research. Established to advance the study of molecular biology across Europe, to nurture young talent, new ideas, and technologies, EMBL is constantly evolving and innovating. EMBL undertakes pioneering research and provides cutting-edge biological services and infrastructures that are essential for European science.

EMBL’s foundational research has, during the past five decades, enabled a better understanding of the molecular basis of life. Since its creation during the era of classical molecular biology, EMBL has played a leading role in the rapid evolution of modern biology, participating in major breakthroughs in the realms of structural, cellular and developmental biology, in the birth of genomics and molecular genetics, and – more recently – in integrative approaches and systems biology.

EMBL scientists have discovered many of the fundamental principles by which organisms are built, including how their building blocks are generated, modified, and brought together in time and space. EMBL research has generated cutting-edge facilities to serve member states and beyond. EMBL occupies a unique position in European science, possessing incredibly strong foundations across all areas of molecular biology. It attracts talented individuals from many disciplines and trains the next generation of scientists who then move on to become global leaders in Europe and around the world. EMBL has played a major role in laying the groundwork of the current scientific revolution, and has spurred the development of many of the tools that scientists use today, including cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), genomics, and advanced imaging.

EMBL strives to be at the forefront of modern biology and to build the foundations for future success. The curiosity-driven scientific discoveries made at EMBL serve as the basis for the next generation of applications and discoveries, driving new technology developments and service provision. Through its next five-year scientific Programme, EMBL intends to propel Europe into a new era of biological understanding, from the molecular building blocks of life through to the complexity of ecosystems – the context within which all life forms exist. EMBL’s ambition in the new Programme, titled ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’, is to establish the molecular basis of life in context, to gain new knowledge that is relevant to understanding life on Earth, and to provide translational potential to support advances in human and planetary health.

Most molecular biology research has focused on studying organisms that are isolated in a laboratory setting, where environmental variation can be minimised. However, life does not happen in isolation, but in the context of communities where organisms interact with each other and respond to constantly changing physicochemical conditions. Due to incredible advances in technology and quantitative data generation, molecular biologists now have the capacity to follow the dynamics of living matter in real time and at multiple scales. Gaining molecular and mechanistic insights to understand how organisms respond to changing environments, and how they influence their environment, are at last feasible.

This will be of fundamental importance in achieving a true understanding of the basis of life. It will also be relevant to the important issue of scientific reproducibility, as differences in biological samples due to subtle environmental parameters can influence the interpretation of experimental data. The challenges facing life on Earth today are huge: the spread of infectious diseases, the loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, and climate change. To take on these challenges, drastic improvements are needed in understanding the processes of life in their natural context. A better understanding of life means a greater ability to preserve it.

EMBL will seize this unique opportunity at a critical time for society, and will undertake bold and potentially transformative discovery science that will also be a force for good for humankind and the planetary ecosystem services that sustain us. Through the new Programme, EMBL will build on its existing and globally recognised expertise in molecular biology to expand into new areas including planetary biology, human ecosystems, infection biology, and microbial ecosystems. Central to the research strategy will be the development of advanced data sciences and theoretical approaches. Through close collaborations with scientists from different domains and within all of EMBL’s member states, this Programme will enable EMBL to build new bridges with disciplines, including ecology and epidemiology, while keeping its firm foundations in molecular biology.

Within this Programme, EMBL will also look to train a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists who will address real-life scientific questions and prepare for future challenges. EMBL is well placed to fulfil its bold ambition of gaining a molecular understanding of life in context. In doing so, EMBL will continue to uphold its special responsibility to lead and coordinate European life sciences in its role as Europe’s flagship life sciences research organisation. The new Programme will be a truly pan-European initiative, providing scientific services and innovation, and sharing expertise with all of EMBL’s member states, while harnessing the strong and dynamic collaborations and networks of partnerships that EMBL has built over many years.

As an international organisation, made stronger by the breadth of its member states and by its physical presence at six sites across five host countries, EMBL is uniquely positioned to deliver this ambitious and timely programme. EMBL’s success is due to its dynamic turnover, interdisciplinarity, and a distinctive scientific culture that blends ambition, excellence, cooperation, and openness across borders and societies. EMBL’s Programme sets out plans to enhance research coordination, to promote joint standards and open science, and to inform and impact international research and policy making. The knowledge and technological advances unlocked as a result of this new Programme will directly help EMBL’s member states to better understand and address the planetary challenges of climate change, pollution, food security, and emerging pathogens.