A mouse pancreas imaged with selective plane illumination microscopy, a technique that will be used at EMBL Barcelona.

© Ahlgren, Mayer & Swoger/CRG

EMBL opens new lab for tissue biology and disease modeling in Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN—You'd have to go back to the years before the economic crisis to feel so much optimism in the Spanish scientific community. In a lecture hall buzzing with excitement, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the Spanish government yesterday presented a plan to open a new lab here for the study of tissues and organs. The center, EMBL's first new outpost in 18 years, will host six to eight research groups; a director has yet to be named but recruitment has begun.

The announcement is welcome news to the Spanish scientific community, which has suffered from years of budget cuts and political neglect. The agreement also strengthens Barcelona's profile as one of southern Europe's premier science hubs, adds Joan Guinovart, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine here. “Barcelona is already one of the hottest spots in biomedicine in Europe," he says.

Headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, EMBL is an international organization supported by 22 member states; it's not affiliated with the European Union. Over the decades, EMBL has established specialized franchises for structural biology in Hamburg, Germany, and Grenoble, France; for bioinformatics in Hinxton, U.K.; and finally, in 1999, for mouse biology in Monterotondo, Italy. The new branch, housed at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB), will study how cells organize and interact at the tissue level. “For a long time, tissue was not possible to study with molecular biology; now it is becoming possible, thanks to the development of new imaging techniques,” Jan Ellenberg, the head of EMBL's Cell Biology & Biophysics Unit, said during yesterday's ceremony.

In 2006, EMBL established a joint research unit at PRBB with Barcelona's Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), led by current CRG director and former EMBL department head Luis Serrano. The partnership combined computational biology with genomics and proteomics to tackle complex systems biology problems. “The quality of the work that was done here was outstanding,” EMBL Director-General Iain Mattaj tells ScienceInsider. That helped convince EMBL's other member states to establish a fully fledged lab here, he says, as did the presence of strong universities, research institutes, and a hospital.

EMBL will invest €16 million in the new site during the first 5 years. Spain, which contributes about €9 million annually to EMBL—8.5% of the organization's total budget—has put an additional €6 million on the table until 2021. The Catalan government will foot the €400,000 annual bill for rent and maintenance.

EMBL Barcelona will provide access to state-of-the art technologies for imaging and modelling of tissues and organs, including a facility to grow organoids, mini-versions of real organs produced in vitro. Researchers will also use computers to model diseases in organs and tissues. “This opens great opportunities scientifically,” says Serrano; “for CRG, it’s a nice way to grow critical mass” in the field, he adds. “One of the biggest frontiers in biology is trying to understand organ functioning, [both] from an intellectual and medical point of view.”