• Print

Short history of the EMBO Workshops in Arolla


A "happening" rather than a meeting and an EMBO workshop with a long tradition. Personal memories by early participant, EMBO Member Klaus Scherrer.


The "Arolla Workshops" are a series of EMBO workshops devoted to eukaryotic molecular biology and genetics. The most recent workshop took place in August 2015 and was organized by Susan Gasser of the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. The focus of this essay is on the history of the Arolla Workshops and the ideas behind them.



The series was established in 1972 with the help of US friends Sheldon Penman and Robert Perry. The workshops had – and continue to have – a distinct flavour due to the original concept of the founders. Former EMBO Director John Tooze once praised the series as "one of the best that EMBO organizes". By 1982, however, his focus on Heidelberg as the centre of EMBO activities led him to suggest it should be discontinued, despite a petition signed by more than 100 participants. Max Birnstiel, then Chair of EMBO Council, saved most of the concept by initiating a new series, which still lives on to be held in Arolla, Switzerland, every third year and is chaired by outstanding Swiss scientists.


John Paul, one of the first molecular haematologists, who worked in Glasgow, once described an early workshop as a "happening", rather than a meeting. Its concept was special indeed, not least the location. The Arolla village is placed in scenic woodland in front of three towering mountains and glaciers. Just below the Alps and the tree-line stands the cosy Grand Hotel Kurhaus, which was built in the 1870s. The hotel is run by the Weatherill-Selz family, who installed a proper lecture hall (and modern bathrooms) after the first meeting.


The main point of the series was (and remains) to focus discussion – down to hard-core chemistry and physics – on results and concepts that have proven to stand the test of time, although being largely forgotten for a while. Indeed, the value and validity of much of what we discussed in those early days has only recently been confirmed by ENCODE data: for instance pervasive transcription, the prevalence of post-transcriptional regulation, the size of primary transcripts and 3D genome structure, etc. How did it all begin?


The initial idea for the series was sparked by a 1970 Cold Spring Harbor (CSH) symposium: a meeting with five-minute talks transmitted to secondary rooms by video. However, this set-up meant no real discussion was possible, so such type of meetings became a source of what we termed "consensus truth" or, even worse, "consensus methods": the acceptance of superficial scientific notions because of the reputation of speakers and their epigones. We wanted a meeting that would deliberately avoid "consensus truth", so the emphasis at Arolla was on discussing results in all details. Each session began with a 40-minute review of the current knowledge in the field to be addressed, followed by 20-minute-talks describing the recent advances. Most importantly, the chairperson held a regular pre-meeting with the speakers, who would pass on the latest information.


Passionate discussions and wild parties


An important feature of the meeting was that ample time was given outside the sessions for the discussion of science. The six-day-meeting kept afternoons free for this purpose. "Let people feel good" was the maxim – a relief from stress and tense scientific battles. There were also wild parties, often after wine tastings down in the valley, and moments of real grace, such as when Charly Thomas played ragtime on a 19th century piano, or Mark Ptashne's violin sounded in the hotel. Hospitality was high on the agenda.


Passionate discussions took place with Francis Crick about "junk DNA" and alternative explanations, leading to the first ideas about 3D genome architecture by 1980. Mark Ptashne and Kurt Wüthrich argued about the stability of hydrogen bonds in DNA-protein interaction. On the practical side, many later biotech pioneers from companies such as Biogen, Chiron, Progen and Intercell attended Arolla. For Steven McKnight, the founder of the US biotech-company Tularik, it was "the best meeting I ever attended".


Over the years, the workshop changed with the times. At some point Arolla became a real "jet-set" meeting: participants were flown in from Japan, the US and Europe to speak about the same transcription factor. Walter Schaffner restored much of the Arolla spirit by returning to a more modest, but still high-calibre meeting. Later, some excellent meetings were devoted exclusively to development. The original idea, however, was to avoid specialisation and to break routine; indeed, the best ideas spring up at crossroads of science. In 2015, the workshop returned to broader topics thanks to Susan Gasser.


Arolla is not a "happening" any more; the attempt we undertook to enforce real discussion was possibly more than could be asked for in time and effort. But it has remained a particular spot for scientific exchange for more than forty years. The fact that data and concepts first discussed at Arolla between 1972 – 1985 have come back to the surface today seems to legitimise the idea and style of the meetings. Rigorousness is the duty of the scientist – one that is unfortunately not always respected. Sadly, the pressure of the "science business" today can lead to stress and competition that sometimes results in corner cutting. To avoid this, we need to take the time for real reflection and discussion in peaceful surroundings – just like in Arolla.


Klaus Scherrer, Institut Jacques Monod, CNRS and Univ. Paris Diderot

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.