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EMBO in perspective
A half-century in the life sciences


By Georgina Ferry



EMBO is an organization of more than 1800 leading researchers that promotes excellence in the life sciences. Over the past 50 years, it has grown significantly from the early pioneering days of molecular biology and made many contributions to promote the development of the life sciences.


Based on personal interviews with Sydney Brenner, L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Georges Cohen, James Watson and the directors of EMBO, this book tells the story of the journey from the study of molecules and microbes in the nuclear age to the growth and expansion of EMBO and the life sciences. It also provides new perspectives on some of the creation myths of the organization.




Chapter 1 Before the beginning

Molecules and microbes in the Nuclear Age


Chapter 2 The birth of EMBO

Some creation myths and the growth of an organization


Chapter 3 Engineering success

Responding to the challenge of new technologies


Chapter 4 Expansion and engagement

Programmes and policies within and beyond Europe


Chapter 5 EMBO embraces the life sciences

From the organism to the molecule and back


Chapter 6 Future visions

A few last words


For more information on how to obtain a copy of  EMBO in perspective:

A half-century in the life sciences please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Bruno J. Strasser


Bruno J. Strasser’s research focuses on the history of the life sciences in the twentieth and twenty–first centuries. He is currently finishing a new book on the rise of "big data biology". His first book, La fabrique d’une nouvelle science: La biologie moléculaire à l’âge atomique, 1945-1964 explores the emergence of molecular biology as new scientific discipline and professional identity in the atomic age. He has published on the history of international scientific cooperation during the cold war, the interactions between experimental science and clinical medicine, the transformations of the pharmaceutical industry, the development of scientific instrumentation, the role of collective memory in science, and the relationships between science and society. He is currently developing an outreach lab, the Bioscope, and starting a new research project on the history of "citizen science" and the transformation of public participation in science. He is professor at the University of Geneva and associate professor at Yale University.


Marc Heppener


Marc Heppener studied physical chemistry at the University of Amsterdam and obtained his PhD in 1986 on time-resolved molecular dissociation processes. In 1986 he joined the Space Research Organisation of the Netherlands, later taking up the position of programme manager for external research. In 1999 Marc joined the European Space Agency as head of the science and applications division in the directorate of human spaceflight and exploration. In this capacity he developed a science-based programme for life and physical sciences in space and served as European Mission Scientist for the International Space Station, interacting with partners in the US, Russia, Canada and Japan. 


From 2009-2012 Marc joined the European Science Foundation as director of science and strategy development. He was engaged in implementing the actions from the EUROHORCs-ESF Road Map for Actions for a globally competitive European Research Area, notably in the areas of scientific foresight, European peer review, research infrastructures, careers and the establishment of a European Grant Union.


In 2012, Marc returned to ESA and became member of the cabinet of the Director General, with responsibility for the High-level Science Advisory Policy Committee, the highest level science advisory committee of ESA, dealing with long-term scientific and technological perspectives, science policy matters and interdisciplinary aspects of all scientific activities of the Agency. Recent Committee activities include the definition of four Grand Science Themes for ESA’s long-term future and finding new ways of communicating about scientific achievements of ESA’s missions.

Helga Nowotny


Helga Nowotny is Professor emerita of Social Studies of Science, ETH Zurich, and a founding member of the European Research Council. In 2007 she was elected ERC Vice President and from March 2010 until December 2013 President of the ERC. Recently, she has been appointed Chair of the ERA Council Forum Austria.


She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Columbia University, NY, and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Vienna. She has held teaching and research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Vienna; King’s College, Cambridge; University of Bielefeld; Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; Ecole des Hautes Etudes an Sciences Sociales, Paris; Science Center for Social Sciences, Berlin; Collegium Budapest; Budapest. Before joining ETH Zurich, Professor Nowotny was Professor for Social Studies of Science at the University of Vienna. Among others, Helga Nowotny is Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and continues to serve on many international advisory boards throughout Europe. She received doctorates honoris causa from several European universities and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Helga Nowotny has published widely in social studies of science and technology and on social time.

The beginnings of The EMBO Journal


The EMBO Journal was started in 1982 when John Tooze was Executive Secretary of EMBO. In the foreword of the very first issue, Tooze and Klaus Weber, then Secretary General of EMBO, quote Francis Crick who wrote a few years earlier that "molecular biology can be defined as anything that interests molecular biologists." At the time, this was the essence of the journal. Tooze and Weber stated "If a paper interests an EMBO member sufficiently for her or him to communicate it and if it interests two members of the editorial board sufficiently for them to advise publication, then it will be published. In short the EMBO, in its journal as in its membership and other activities, will maintain a catholic definition of molecular biology."


Since 1982, The EMBO Journal has grown immeasurably. It now publishes papers describing original research of broad general interest in molecular and cell biology, with particular emphasis placed on molecular mechanism or physiological relevance.


Today, EMBO publishes four journals including EMBO reports, Molecular Systems Biology and EMBO Molecular Medicine. All four journals are now published as part of EMBO Press, a new publishing platform launched at the end of 2013 that delivers enhanced functionality, content and design, and a consistent set of constructive policies, editorial processes and quality standards across the four EMBO publications.


Listen to John Tooze talk about the early days of The EMBO Journal:



Read the foreword of the first issue of The EMBO Journal by John Tooze and Klaus Weber.


Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.




The Volkswagen Foundation

As with many foundations financing scientific research, physicists held key positions at the Volkswagen Foundation. Its funding department was headed by Rudolf Kerscher, a physicist by training and a friend of Leo Szilard. Kerscher visited Szilard in the USA in the summer of 1962, even before he launched the idea of EMBO in December 1962 at CERN, which has become the mythical origin of EMBO.


Kerscher sought advice about where the Volkswagen Foundation should invest its funds to make a difference to European science, and Szilard, who had started a new career in molecular biology, pointed to this field as a promising venture. Just before Szilard died, a meeting between him, Kerscher and Gotthard Gambke, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation in 1964, proved decisive in convincing the foundation to support EMBO.


In 1965, after many rounds of negotiations, the foundation awarded EMBO DM 2,748,000 roughly the equivalent of €4.1 million today. This money funded the first five years of EMBO's fellowship programme and gave EMBO enough time to seek more permanent support.

Source: Bruno Strasser, EMBO reports, vol.4, no.6, 2003, pp.540-543.

Copyright EMBO

The meeting at CERN


The founding myth of EMBO, set out in John Tooze’s 1981 history of the organization for the launch issue of the EMBO Journal (1), is that:


In December 1962, immediately following the Nobel Prize investiture ceremony, John C. Kendrew together with James D. Watson visited [CERN] in Geneva. Leo Szilard… was also in Geneva at the time… During the course of a conversation the three visitors had with Victor Weisskopf… Leo Szilard proposed that Europe’s molecular biologists should… establish an international laboratory for molecular or fundamental biology patterned on the CERN model… The upshot was a meeting held at Ravello, Italy on 16-17 September 1963.


Szilard, famously, had arrived in Geneva during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, bearing 15 suitcases and announcing himself to the CERN director Victor Weisskopf as ‘the first refugee from the Third World War.’ But other aspects of this myth require clarification. James Watson is the only participant in the meeting still alive, and he reveals that the motives of the three visitors were very different. Furthermore, as is clearly documented elsewhere (2), Szilard had returned to Washington DC by the time Watson and Kendrew arrived in Geneva.


After the Nobel Prize I went first to Berlin and then Cologne and then I went to Geneva… I was going to spend part of the Christmas holidays with Alfred Tissières [skiing] at Verbier… The driving force for the meeting [with Weisskopf] was John Kendrew… [he and I] met in Geneva… I was disappointed that Szilard was no longer there… I can imagine what we would have said, which was that molecular biology in Europe lacked a Cold Spring Harbor, which was a site where they could get together to talk.


Although not present at the meeting, Sydney Brenner offers an interesting sidelight on what had happened previously.


Szilard and Weisskopf wanted to found CERB, Centre Européenne de Recherche Biologique. The idea was that nuclear physics and molecular biology would go together. 


Other evidence (see Buzzati-Traverso’s letter of 13 December 1962 to Victor Weisskopf, reproduced in the EMBO ‘Silver Book’ of 2004) (3) suggests that Weisskopf had been thinking about a biology laboratory next to CERN before Szilard even arrived. But from this point on, it was John Kendrew who took the initiative in driving forward the proposal. At this stage, he clearly envisaged a European laboratory, with a working title of CERB, based in Geneva and working very closely with CERN. By the time of the Ravello meeting, less than a year later, the proposal had developed into something more complex.


1. Tooze, J. (1981) A brief history of the European Molecular Biology Organization. EMBO J. sample copy, 1–6.


2. Lanouette, W. (1992) Genius in the shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard, Macmillan, chapter 25.


3. EMBO: 40 years of success, 2004.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences

John Tooze


John Tooze has called the EMBO secretariat under his leadership (from 1973 – 1994) a ‘string and sealing wax operation.’   And to any of his successors it must be a mystery how he ran EMBO, including founding and editing The EMBO Journal and supporting Lennart Phillipson at EMBL, with only the support of his two invaluable secretaries Mare Kriis and Jenny Schulze-Eyssing. The answer is that he has always had an unerring sense of what can be achieved within the resources available.


That is not to say he has not been ambitious, playing a key role within EMBO in persuading the mighty NIH to change its guidelines on recombinant DNA, for example. And powerful research leaders have found him invaluable at turning their visions into practical reality. His training was a textbook preparation for the founding years of molecular biology. ‘I did my first degree in Cambridge,’ he says, ‘a PhD at Kings [College London] in the biophysics department where Maurice Wilkins and John Randall worked, and then I spent two years in Jim Watson's lab at Harvard working on phage genetics.’


Returning to a lectureship at Kings, he started writing a cell biology column for Nature every week, and got to know the editor, John Maddox. For two years he worked full-time as assistant and then deputy editor of Nature, until Maddox fell out with the publisher, Macmillan, and decided to resign. ‘I thought what do I do? And [the virologist] Mike Stoker had just moved to be Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) labs. He offered me a job of being essentially a recruiting agent for him, and also running a small lab.’ It was Michael Stoker who suggested he apply to be Ray Appleyard’s successor at EMBO, where he stayed almost 20 years.


By the early 1990s, Paul Nurse had just become scientific director at the ICRF. ‘I felt that if I didn't move then I was going to stay until retirement,’ Tooze says. ‘Neither my wife nor I wanted to stay in Heidelberg that long. And Paul said ‘Why don't you come down [to ICRF]?’… I became director of core support services.’ Tooze was on hand as Nurse, by then Director General, embarked on an ambitious merger of the UK’s two largest cancer charities, ICRF and the Cancer Research Campaign. When in 2003 the Nobel laureate Nurse became President of Rockefeller University in New York, he lured Tooze across the Atlantic.


On Tooze’s watch as Vice-President for scientific and facility operations, Rockefeller has undertaken a massive capital building project, transforming two early 20th century buildings to create new lab space. The saving on material over building anew appeals to Tooze’s sense of the need to conserve world resources. The economists’ argument that we can spend our way out of recession appals him. ‘Are we arguing that that's a sustainable future?’ he asks incredulously. ‘I don't believe it.’


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.


Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

Maria Leptin

When it came to finding a new Director of EMBO in 2010, the members of Council were determined to appoint an active researcher. Few can compete with the level of activity of Maria Leptin, a professor at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Genetics. As well as running research teams in both development and immunology, she has served on EMBO committees, including Council. She has been chair of a review panel of the Advanced Grants for the European Research Council since its inception in 2007.
Leptin is still somewhat surprised to find herself in an administrative role. ‘My whole life has been like that,’ she says. ‘I never did what I planned to do.’ She still runs her lab in Cologne, commuting back and forth from Heidelberg weekly.
Leptin did her PhD at the Institute of Immunology in Basel, where she used to go and listen to talks in molecular biology at the Biozentrum. Later, determined to shift fields, she did her research and made applications. ‘I ended up with someone to whom I hadn't applied, working on a subject that I had definitely excluded, just because I liked the lab and the project best,’ she says. She joined Mike Wilcox at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, using antibodies to study cell surface molecules during development in Drosophila.
Having determined on a group leader position in America, she ended up going to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. Leptin planned to go back to England, but was also offered a job in Cologne. At the University of Cologne, she helped establish the Graduate School for Biological Sciences and currently serves on its Executive Board.
Leptin is an EMBO Member since 1996. She joined EMBO Council in 2009, when the search for a new director was in full swing. And history repeated itself when she was asked to apply. ‘If someone asks me to do something I tend to do it,’ she says.
Now she also heads a group at EMBL, using the superb imaging facilities to study cell shape determination in Drosophila and innate immune responses in zebrafish. ‘One needs the science to stay sane - grounded in reality,’ she says.



Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.


Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

Frank Gannon


Born in Galway in the west of Ireland, EMBO’s third Executive Secretary Frank Gannon has built a career out of seeing possibilities where others might not see them, for himself and for the organisations he has worked for.

‘I'm pretty international,’ he says. ‘I did my PhD in Leicester. After that I went to Madison Wisconsin, and I changed from being an entomologist to being an oestrogen receptor person. Then back to Strasbourg [as an EMBO Fellow] in Pierre Chambon's laboratory. And I think that was where I started making my networks.’ After six productive years in France, Gannon decided to go back to the University of Galway in Ireland.


‘When I went back there I wrote a letter saying “I'm going to do three things. I'm going to have a laboratory that is respectable at world level. I’m going to introduce genetic engineering into the scientific community there. And I'm going to have an impact on industry through biotechnology.”’ Despite the under-resourcing of Irish universities – Gannon was criticised for using the telephone too much – he achieved all three.


As one of Ireland’s few international scientists (he was elected an EMBO member in 1983), Gannon represented his country on various European Union committees, one of which was chaired by EMBL Director Fotis Kafatos. ‘At the end of one meeting I heard that John Tooze had stepped down [as EMBO Executive Secretary]’, he says. Soon afterwards he was approached to apply for the job.


‘I recall saying to Mary [his wife], I'm 45, it's going to be a very hard life trying to keep the show on the road in Galway. So we looked at different aspects, like where was the Irish economy going at the time? Down the drain. Was it likely that our daughters would stay in Ireland when they grew up and qualified? No. Therefore why feel that we should stay in Ireland?’ Gannon stayed at EMBO from 1994 until 2007, developing programmes such as the Young Investigators and Science and Society, all of which continue in some form today.


After EMBO, he returned to Ireland as director of Science Foundation Ireland. ‘Every year I asked the scientists “What industries are you interacting with, if any? And it became the most powerful tool I had with the government, that I was able to tell them that there were 400 industries working with 600 scientists at any level.’


For his latest move Gannon has returned to his first love, research. Since 2011 he has been director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, where he also heads a small group working on control of gene expression. ‘Running a medical research institution is quite different from running EMBO or Science Foundation Ireland,’ he says. ‘I've shifted along the line to be much more demanding of people to make good use of their science. Because the money that's going into research from the countries needs to be justified.’


Frank Gannon talks about the early days of the Young Investigator Programme



Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.


Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

Hermann Bujard


Hermann Bujard, who led EMBO as Director from 2007-2010, also shares the credit for EMBO coming to Heidelberg in 1973. His experience of working in American laboratories in the 1960s gave him a lifelong determination to provide a better environment for fast-moving subjects such as molecular biology in Germany’s hierarchical university departments.


Bujard had switched from natural product chemistry to molecular biology after doing his PhD at the University of Göttingen. ‘Some of my friends did a PhD with Manfred Eigen’ he says. ‘So I was exposed to the new thinking of the Eigen lab. And that got me into molecular biology.’ He went to the United States, initially as a postdoc in Charles Heidelberger’s laboratory at University of Wisconsin-Madison.


‘We had a collaboration with Gobind Khorana's lab, and of course they were just deciphering the genetic code,’ he remembers. He was also exposed to the unique atmosphere of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings. ‘There were people like Monod and Crick and Delbrück, probably two dozen Nobel laureates,’ he says. ‘This was unbelievably inspiring, and they were all easy going: no ties, T shirts, hanging around using first names.’


Bujard returned to his homeland in 1969 and took up an assistant professorship in molecular genetics at Heidelberg University. Almost immediately, working with Peter von Sengbusch from Ken Holmes’s lab at the Max Planck Institut for Medical Research, he helped to put together the case for EMBO to come to Heidelberg. ‘I always thought it can only help if there are more molecular biologists here, and that's how Heidelberg grew,’ he says.


In the early 1980s Bujard helped to set up the Centre for Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg (ZMBH). At that time the authorities refused to set aside centuries of tradition and adopt an Anglo-Saxon departmental structure. So he left to set up a molecular biology laboratory for the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche. There he began to work on a vaccine against malaria. ‘I decided late in my life that I should try to do something useful, which is much more difficult,’ he says. ‘If I were just to work on mechanisms of malaria parasite transcription I would always have papers, and no child would ever profit from that.’


After four years, he returned to ZMBH as chairman, and this time succeeded in establishing the department structure he wanted. ‘This went up to the governor here in the state, and it was agreed,’ he says. ‘It is one of a few German institutes to my knowledge that has almost an American department structure.’


Since handing over the Directorship of EMBO to Maria Leptin in 2010, he has been a Distinguished Professor at ZMBH and still runs an active lab. He is looking forward to seeing his candidate malaria vaccine enter clinical trials. ‘If this should work out, my goal is to go back to Africa and see if we can demonstrate efficacy,’ he says. An ambitious goal – but so was bringing EMBO to Heidelberg all those years ago.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.



Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

Raymond Appleyard

International official and first Executive Secretary


Had Raymond Appleyard deliberately set out to prepare himself for the role of EMBO’s first Executive Secretary, he could not have done a better job. Having participated in the formative years of molecular biology, he joined first the United Nations and then the European Commission in senior administrative roles. ‘I had a bit of physics, a bit of biology, a bit of governmental - I had it all,’ he says now.


As a young man with a Cambridge physics degree under his belt, he immediately began to try to ‘shift into biology,’ convinced that a successful career in science would depend on competence in more than one discipline. The shift took him to the United States, where he spent two years in biophysics at Yale. Thanks to a Rockefeller fellowship, he then joined the laboratory of Max Delbrück at Caltech, where he worked with the Swiss molecular biologist Jean Weigle on the interactions of lambda phage with its bacterial host. ‘This was the start, because this was real proper biology,’ says Appleyard. He presented his findings at the historic 1953 Cold Spring Harbor symposium, where Watson and Crick first spoke in public on the double helix. Twelve of those present would go on to win Nobel prizes.


By this time Appleyard had moved to the Chalk River Laboratories, a research institute of the Canadian atomic energy authority. In 1956 the United Nations convened the first meeting of its Scientific Committee on the effects of atomic radiation [UNSCEAR]. ‘They sent [as Canadian representative] a senior public health man [Ernest Watkinson], accompanied by somebody much younger who knew a bit about radiation and biology and physics,’ says Appleyard. ‘So I went and we had a great time.’ He became secretary to the Committee, and spent the next four years in New York. ‘The UN was wonderful,’ he says. ‘So having moved from physics to biology, I found myself moving into the semi-governmental.’


Appleyard returned to Europe in 1960 to lead the biological research and training activities of Euratom. He took on the administration of EMBO concurrently from 1965 until 1973. With Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC), he joined the top brass at the European Commission as Director General, Scientific and Technical Information and Information Management. In that role he was able to oversee another revolution, helping to harmonise data networks across Europe as the age of the internet dawned.


Appleyard has retired to East Sussex, where he lives with his wife Joan, also a trained scientist. Asked if he saw his move to administration as a step down from science, he replies ‘At the time I regarded it as a step down. Today I don't know. Today I would say the administration actually needs people who have a bit of experience of working at the laboratory bench… I take great pride in EMBO, I have to admit.’


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.


Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

The Ravello Meeting


The Ravello meeting took place in September 1963 and was critical in the development of what was to become EMBO. Meetings had taken place on 28 March and 28 June in Geneva, hosted by Victor Weisskopf who invited the great and the good from several European countries, working from a list drawn up by John Kendrew.


All participants agreed on the problems that were inhibiting the development of molecular biology in Europe: that young, ambitious scientists left for the United States to further their careers; that disciplines such as zoology and botany were rigidly separated in University departments; that there was no European integration of research; and that it was harder, for entirely bureaucratic reasons, for a European biologist to make a career move from one European country to another than for the same person to go to the United States.


In a paper prepared by Conrad Hal Waddington, it was suggested that the purpose of the organization would be ‘to build up the resources (equipment, jobs) of a number of selected labs in the various nations of Europe, and to make communication between them really easy.’ (1)  He also proposed the election of 100–150 Fellows, who would be funded to make short visits to one another, as well as postdoctoral posts and courses.


Few personal recollections are still available of the Ravello meeting itself. Held on 16 and 17 September, it was added on to the end of a ten-day international summer school on molecular biology.


(1)  Waddington C.R., unpublished paper, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. c. 2418, NCUACS F.3.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.

Foundation of EMBL

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory was the idea of prominent scientists such as the American physicist and molecular biologist Leo Szilárd and Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson and John C. Kendrew. Their goal was to create a CERN-like supranational research centre to redress the balance in the strongly US-dominated field of molecular biology.


[ N.B. "Viki" referred to in the audio by Dr. Brenner is Victor Weisskopf. He served as Director General of CERN from 1961 to 1966.]


The founding contract of this centre of excellence was signed in July 1974 on a basis of an intergovernmental treaty of nine European countries plus Israel. Since then, the number of member states has increased progressively, until Luxembourg became the twentieth member in 2007, and Australia joined as an associate member in 2008.


EMBL's founding father John C. Kendrew served as the first Director General of EMBL until 1982, when he was succeeded by Lennart Philipson. The third Director General, Fotis C. Kafatos, served from April 1993 to April 2005. Iain Mattaj, who was Scientific Director from 1999 until 2005, is EMBL's fourth and current Director General.


Source of main text: EMBL

Audio Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences. Georgina Ferry.

Return to beginning of anniversary timeline.

The EMBC established


While the funding from the Volkswagen Foundation and other initial funders enabled EMBO to recruit a secretariat, elect members, provide the first fellowships and run courses and workshops, it would ultimately need a more permanent funding source. That meant obtaining support from national governments, on the model that funded CERN and other international laboratories. EMBO Council members and others consulted their national ministries. Possibly due to EMBO’s historic associations with CERN, and the shared desire of Victor Weisskopf and John Kendrew to see a European molecular biology laboratory established in Geneva, the Swiss government was the first to respond favourably. Its diplomatic initiative, referred to since as ‘the Swiss initiative,’ opened discussions initially with 13 other national governments: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.


The European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC), as it became known, had to be legally distinct from EMBO. It met formally for the first time at CERN on 13 February 1969, and representatives of 12 of the 14 member countries signed the agreement bringing it into being.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.

EMBO publishes statement on recombinant DNA technology

Almost as soon as recombinant research began to take off in the United States, one of the leading scientists in the field, Paul Berg of the University of Stanford, wrote a letter to the National Academy of Sciences in the United States calling for a moratorium on certain types of recombinant research until guidelines had been drawn up. It was published on 26 July 1974 in the journal Science. The fear was that recombinant organisms might escape into the environment, with unpredictable and possibly lethal effects. The upshot was an international conference held at Asilomar in California in February 1975. Along with members of the EMBO Council, former Executive Director of EMBO John Tooze was worried that unwarranted fear of recombinant organisms might lead to regulations that would make research all but impossible.


EMBO decided as a scientific organization - and many of the people involved wanted to do recombinant DNA experiments - that we should set up some kind of group to chip in to this debate. So the EMBO Recombinant DNA Committee was set up, and we met fairly frequently at Heathrow Airport… on a Saturday and a Sunday… What happened was a discussion of how risky it really was. We set up an experiment with Ken Murray, and it was published in Nature (1), putting polyoma [a tumour virus] in E. coli and sticking them in mice and seeing if the mice went down with polyoma. Ken Murray went to Porton Down and did the whole thing in full Category 3 containment. We came to the conclusion that the way NIH was going about it was just madness. Because our lot argued that the absolute safest way to study viral genomes is to have them in a plasmid in E. coli, either in whole genome or fragments of genome. And the most dangerous way is to have tubes of virions, because they've spent all their lives evolving to be infectious agents. And so you had this enormous security once they were cloned into E. coli.

John Tooze


In December 1977, Tooze travelled to Washington DC to put the EMBO view to the National Institutes of Health.

I stood up and said my piece about EMBO feeling, in particular with viruses, that the NIH rules were nonsense. Much to my surprise the NIH suggested that we hold a workshop in Britain to sort this out. On March 31st 1978 at Ascot, not far from the racecourse, we held a US/EMBO workshop specifically to discuss the risks of recombinant DNA with plant and animal viruses. To my knowledge it was the first time any organization like EMBO had held a meeting with NIH, based outside the 50 states of the US. I was quite stunned really. The Americans came anxious to use this as a way of dismantling where they'd got themselves. And once that happened, and it's accepted that it’s safer to study viral genomes in E. coli, then can it be really dangerous to study all the other genomes? So I think that was a turning point in the regulation of recombinant DNA research in terms of its potential as a biohazard.


John Tooze



The outcome was that the NIH drew back from demanding Level 3 containment for recombinant DNA research, and Tooze is in no doubt that the EMBO committee played a key role in influencing that decision.


Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.

EMBO 50th Anniversary


EMBO was founded nearly 50 years ago to promote molecular biology in Europe. Today molecular biology pervades all the life sciences, from agriculture and medicine to forensics and ecology, and it continues to be a foundation for essential scientific progress. Since 1964 EMBO has created, developed and nurtured a network of some of the best European life scientists who have helped to build a European research environment where scientists can make important discoveries that benefit society and the world.


EMBO celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. A full range of activities and events are planned throughout the year to highlight the contributions that EMBO has made to the life sciences over its 50 years of existence. Activities range from talks and meetings to interviews and publications.


More information about EMBO will be available early in the year from our anniversary timeline.



Main anniversary events in 2014:


The EMBO-EMBL Anniversary Science and Policy Meeting will focus on science, policy and politics. This event will feature scientific talks from leading researchers, the participation of European science ministers, and sessions concentrating on policy issues in areas such as biotechnology and research infrastructures.


The FEBS EMBO 2014 Conference is a joint meeting organized by The Federation of the European Biochemical Societies (FEBS), EMBO and the Société Française de Biochimie et de Biologie Moléculaire (SFBBM). This anniversary meeting will bring together scientists from across the world to discuss the latest developments and findings in the molecular life sciences.


The 2014 Anniversary EMBO Members’ Meeting is a special membership meeting and party celebration open to all EMBO Members. The meeting will also welcome the most recently elected members of EMBO.


Further details about the anniversary and planned activities will be made available from this web site later in the year.




For the best experience on the timeline, please use the browser on your desktop computer and make sure you are using the latest version of your browser.




EMBO-EMBL Anniversary Science and Policy Meeting

Wednesday 2 July and Thursday 3 July 2014

Location: EMBL Advanced Training Centre, Heidelberg, Germany




2014 is the 50th anniversary of EMBO, the 45th anniversary of The European Molecular Biology Conference, the inter-governmental organization that supports EMBO and which promotes molecular biology in the European Union and neighbouring countries, and the 40th anniversary of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.


The EMBO-EMBL Anniversary Science and Policy Meeting will focus on science, policy and politics and will feature scientific talks from leading researchers, the participation of European science ministers, and sessions concentrating on policy issues in areas such as excellence and inclusion.


The meeting will recognize the contributions of EMBO, EMBC and EMBL to the advancement of molecular biology in Europe.


Speakers on Wednesday 2 July (Day 1) include Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General, DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission, Ada Yonath, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, and Elizabeth Murchison, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.  


Speakers on Thursday 3 July (Day 2) include Bruno Strasser, University of Geneva, Switzerland, Marc Heppener, European Space Agency, and Helga Nowotny, ERA Council Forum.


Programme day 1


2 July 2014





Welcome address 
Marja Makarow 
Master of Ceremonies
Vice President for Research of the Academy of Finland


Opening remarks

Maria Leptin
EMBO Director

Iain Mattaj
Director General EMBL


Georg Schütte
State Secretary | Federal Ministry of Education and Research | Germany


Robert-Jan Smits
Director General | DG Research & Innovation | European Commission


From basic science to advanced medicine

Ada Yonath | Scientific talk
Weizmann Institute of Science | IsraelNobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry 2009


Musical interlude

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | String Quartet in G major KV 156
Quadriga Quartett
Julia Grether and Jochen Steyer | ViolineHorst Düker | Viola and Eva Röntz | Violoncello


Break in Auditorium Foyer

Science Tree ceremony


Science Ministers' panel

Geneviève Fioraso
Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research France

Marc Hansen
Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research Luxembourg

Hon. Evarist Bartolo
Minister of Education and Employment Malta

Carmen Vela
Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation Spain

Mauro Dell'Ambrogio
State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation Switzerland


Genome analysis of transmissible cancers in dogs and Tasmanian devils

Elizabeth Murchison | Scientific talk
University of Cambridge | United KingdomWellcome Trust Sanger Institute | United Kingdom


Closing remarks

Claudio Sunkel
Chair | EMBL CouncilDirector | Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology | Portugal

Toivo Maimets 
President | European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC) Director | Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology | University of Tartu | Estonia


Musical interlude

Felix Mendelssohn | String Quartet No.1 in E flat major | Op.12: II.Canzonetta
Quadriga Quartett
Julia Grether and Jochen Steyer | ViolineHorst Düker | Viola and Eva Röntz | Violoncello


Reception in Auditorium Foyer


Programme day 2


3 July 2014


Forum: Inclusion and Excellence in Science



Coffee and tea in Auditorium Foyer


Welcome address
Carl-Henrik Heldin
Chair of the Forum
Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research | Sweden



Michele Garfinkel
EMBO Science Policy Programme

Silke Schumacher
European Molecular Biology Laboratory | International Relations


Putting molecular biology on the political agenda:The creation of the European Molecular Biology Conference
Bruno Strasser
University of Geneva | Switzerland

Julio Celis
Danish Cancer Society Research Center | Denmark


Break in Auditorium Foyer


Space: A platform for European scientific and technological excellence

Marc Heppener
European Space Agency | France


Lunch in Auditorium Foyer


Excellence attracts excellence—and what about the rest? Reflections on excellence and inclusion
Helga Nowotny 
ERA Council Forum | Austria

Claudio Sunkel
Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology | Portugal


Closing remarks

Angela Nieto
Vice President | European Molecular Biology ConferenceInstituto de Neurociencias (CSIC–UMH) | Spain

Iain Mattaj
Director General | European Molecular Biology Laboratory

Maria Leptin
Director | EMBO





EMBL Advanced Training Centre

Meyerhofstraße 1

69117 Heidelberg



The conference lectures will take place in the Klaus Tschira Auditorium in the Advanced Training Centre (ATC) on the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) campus.




Heidelberg is centrally located in Germany and Europe in general and is easily reached by car, train or plane. EMBL is located in Heidelberg's neighbourhood of Boxberg, which is approximately 10 minutes by car from Heidelberg's city centre.


Map of EMBL Heidelberg and Guesthouses

Map of EMBL Heidelberg Campus




Frankfurt International Airport

Frankfurt International airport is the closest (about 80 km) and most convenient airport for Heidelberg.


Frankfurt Hahn Airport

Frankfurt Hahn airport is a small airport west of Frankfurt International Airport. It offers cheap air fares.
There are Shuttle Buses running to and from several cities. Travel time from and to Heidelberg is approximately two hours.


Baden-Airpark Karlsruhe Baden-Baden

Baden-Airpark is a small airport near Baden-Baden, about one hour south of Heidelberg. It offers cheap air fares and can be reached easily by car being situated close to motorway A5 (Basel-Karlsruhe).


Stuttgart Airport

Stuttgart Airport is an international airport located 13 km south of Stuttgart city centre and about an hour and a half south of Heidelberg. It offers cheap air fares and can be reached easily by car being situated close to the motorway A8 (Munich-Karlsruhe)


Airport Shuttles


The Lufthansa Bus to Heidelberg leaves from Terminal 1 on the Arrivals Level, Exit B4. It leaves once an hour, seven days a week. It costs EUR 23,00 one way (EUR 42,00 return ticket) and it arrives in the Heidelberg Crowne Plaza Hotel, Kurfürstenanlage 1–3 (city centre). You do not need to be a Lufthansa passenger in order to use this service.

Please reserve your seat three days in advance.

Lufthansa Bus Schedule


Limousine transfer


The following companies offer reliable Limousine transfer from and to various airports:


A&S Airportservice

Phone: +49 (0) 6221 7274466
Mobile: +49 (0)172 7448856

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TRN Airport Transfer
Heinz Thews
Phone: +49 (0) 6226 60698
Mobile: +49 (0) 177 6781070

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Taxi Weinmann

Phone: + 49 (0) 6203 17245
Mobile: +49 (0) 172 9123 922

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Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is located in the city centre. There are express services to all countries in Europe by fast national and international trains as well as regional trains.

Train schedules




From the motorway A5 (Karlsruhe-Frankfurt), take the exit Heidelberg-Schwetzingen and head for Heidelberg-Boxberg-Emmertsgrund. Go up the hill, turn left at the Aral petrol station into Boxberg and go straight through the Boxberg residential area, keeping left after the EMBL guesthouse. EMBL is located in Meyerhofstraße in the forest on your right, shortly after you have left Boxberg.


From the motorway A6 (Mannheim-Heilbronn), take the exit Wiesloch–Rauenberg. Follow the signs to Heidelberg (B3). You will finally reach a fork in the road where you stay on the right, direction of Boxberg–Emmertsgrund. Go up the hill, turn left at the Aral petrol station into Boxberg and go straight through the Boxberg residential area, keeping left after the EMBL guesthouse. EMBL is located in Meyerhofstraße in the forest on your right, shortly after you have left Boxberg.


Public Transport


Bus 39

Click on the links at below to view the exact times for the stops between Bismarckplatz and EMBL.


Timetable for bus 39


Bus 39 (direction Königstuhl, EMBL or Rohrbach Süd) runs from Bismarckplatz. The former Schnellbus F has been integrated into this line effective 15 December 2013. The bus going to EMBL or Rohrbach Süd takes you directly to EMBL.
When taking the bus to Königstuhl, get off at Bierhelderhof bus stop, turn right down the hill and turn left onto Bierhelderhofweg. Walk down past the farm, turn left onto Meyerhofstraße. Continue up Meyerhofstraße, turning left in front of the EMBO building. The EMBL ATC is on your left; to reach EMBL's main entrance, continue up the hill and turn right after the bend.
The last bus from EMBL going downtown during weekdays is at 20.47. There are no direct buses from or to EMBL at the weekend. Please use the MPI Kernphysik stop instead.



Timetable for RufTaxi 1004

The RufTaxi starts running once the bus service has stopped on weekedays from 21.52 and every hour (also at 0.22) until 0.52 from EMBL. You need to call 06221 30 20 30 at least 30 minutes before the departure time. A single ticket into Heidelberg with the RufTaxi costs 1.50 Euros or free when using a job ticket.



Taxis are available outside the Heidelberg main train station or can be telephoned at 06221 302030. The journey to EMBL from the train station / city centre will cost between EUR 10,- and 15,-.


For further details about the EMBO-EMBL Anniversary Science and Policy Meeting please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

FEBS EMBO 2014 Conference

Saturday 30 August to Thursday 4 September 2014 

Location: Palais des Congrès, Paris, France


The FEBS EMBO 2014 Conference will celebrate the 50th anniversaries of FEBS and EMBO and the 100th anniversary of the French Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The meeting is an international event that brings together leading researchers to discuss the latest scientific findings in the life sciences. Scientists from across the world will be able to attend a jointly organized conference in Paris, France, that offers unparalleled scope for the entire range of the life sciences.


For further details about the meeting please visit www.febs-embo2014.org

2014 Anniversary EMBO Members Meeting

Wednesday 29 October to Friday 31 October 2014 

Location: Heidelberg, Germany


The 2014 Anniversary EMBO Members Meeting is an occasion for new EMBO Members to present their research to the wider community. The meeting welcomes newly elected members and associate members and current EMBO members interested in attending the 50th anniversary celebrations of EMBO.

The meeting is an opportunity to hear about some of the latest advances in the life sciences and will also include celebratory activities and entertainment.


For further details about the meeting please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Director’s welcome to the 50th anniversary of EMBO


2014 is the 50th anniversary of EMBO and it is a pleasure to share with you information about our organization and our plans for celebration.


When I became Director in 2010, I was familiar with some of the remarkable work of EMBO since I had served on committees responsible for the membership and publications. Since then, my appreciation has deepened further by working more closely with its community of scientists and the staff at EMBO. We can be extremely proud of what EMBO has achieved. Since 1964, EMBO has created, developed and nurtured a network of some of the best life scientists who have helped to build a successful European research environment.


Over the course of 2014, we have planned activities and events to highlight the many contributions that EMBO has made to the life sciences. We will be looking back on achievements, reflecting on progress, and also taking a look at what is in store for our organization. I invite you to explore our anniversary web pages that describe the programme of events planned for 2014. The web pages include an anniversary timeline where you can learn more about EMBO and meet some of the people who have influenced the organization over the years. We will also be keeping you informed through our anniversary blog.


For our anniversary, we have been working with Georgina Ferry on a collection of interviews with scientists who have witnessed and influenced the history of molecular biology and EMBO. Selected material from the book will be made available via the anniversary timeline on our web site and the book will be published early this year. These personal accounts will bring together engaging information about the formative years of molecular biology and we hope this will be of interest to our wider audience.


Three anniversary events are planned in 2014, a science and policy meeting which will be held in Heidelberg, Germany, in July, a joint anniversary event with FEBS and the French Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology that will take place in Paris, France, at the end of August and a special membership meeting scheduled for October. Further details for all of these anniversary events are available here.


EMBO was founded in 1964 to promote molecular biology in Europe. Today molecular biology pervades all the life sciences, from agriculture and medicine to forensics and ecology, and it continues to be a foundation for essential scientific progress. The EMBO story is really about the growth of a scientific community in Europe. It is the spirit of this community that we hope to capture in our anniversary year.


I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to EMBO over the past fifty years. I would also like to thank all the people who have helped to organize the celebratory activities and events that will take place in 2014.


We are already looking forward to the next decades and further scientific achievements.


Maria Leptin
EMBO Director