European Molecular Biology Organisation/Laboratory (EMBO/EMBL)


Two European organisations exist for promoting molecular biology. EMBO is a ‘federation’ of universities and national research centres. EMBL today comprises five well‐equipped ‘central’ laboratories. These complementary organisations were institutional responses to different conceptions of how best to maintain the strength of molecular biology in Europe and halt the ‘brain drain’ of talented researchers to the United States. The federal model prevailed in the early 1960s as many molecular biologists feared that a central laboratory would be established at the expense of national facilities that were being built all over Europe. The central laboratory gained traction in the 1970s thanks in part to the expansion of the European Economic Community to include the United Kingdom.

Key Concepts:

  • Europe has two institutions devoted to promoting molecular biology at the regional level.

  • This is a residue of history: there were strong disagreements inside the community over the best institutional form needed to advance the field in the early 1960s.

  • A federal model competed with a centralised laboratory ‘modeled on CERN’ and it was agreed to stagger the two in time.

  • The determination to strengthen national capabilities is always in dynamic tension with the push to establish a major European research facility.

  • The demand for costly equipment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for establishing regional research facilities.

Keywords: brain drain; CERN; double helix; Kendrew; Nobel Prize; Volkswagen foundation


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Further Reading

Morange M (1997) EMBO and EMBL. In: Krige J and Guzzetti L (eds) History of European Scientific and Technological Cooperation, Firenze, 9–11 November 1995, pp. 77–92. Luxembourg: European Communities.

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Krige, John(Jun 2013) European Molecular Biology Organisation/Laboratory (EMBO/EMBL). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024935]