by Ivy Kupec

European Molecular Biology Laboratory embarks on new strategic programme, ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’, expanding its scope by looking at life in context

Credit: Creative Team/EMBL

Extraordinary times demand an extraordinary approach.

That is the spirit behind the next five-year strategic programme at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’. The programme, which officially starts this year, should help start a new era for molecular life sciences in Europe and provide new avenues for collaboration and trailblazing research and innovation.

“The planet’s most challenging problems require all hands on deck,” said Edith Heard, EMBL Director General. “Today, molecular biologists have unprecedented tools and talent to explore the mechanisms and diversity of life in context and across scales, and to rise up to human and planetary health challenges.”

On 24 November 2021, the anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, EMBL’s Council of Delegates approved the ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’ programme for 2022-2026. This strategic document expands EMBL’s scope to understanding ecosystems at the molecular level and studying life in the context of its environment. The result is fundamental research that informs potential solutions for some of society’s biggest challenges, such as an irreversible loss of biodiversity, antimicrobial resistance, pollution, climate change, food security, and emergent pathogens.

EMBL’s programme is the strategic plan and vision that underpins EMBL research, services, training, and operations. Under the aegis of this new programme, EMBL will consider the molecular basis of life in its broadest sense – not only in the context of cells and whole organisms, but also within communities where organisms interact with each other and respond to constantly changing physical and chemical conditions.

Building on past expertise

In recent years, EMBL researchers have already made strides towards scientific discoveries that follow the spirit of the new programme. Some of the projects EMBL has already begun pursuing and will expand upon under the aegis of the new programme include:

  • EMBL has initiated and participated in collaborative expeditions with the Tara Oceans Consortium to monitor oceans around the world, revealing an extraordinary and previously unexplored biodiversity. Studying the impact of climate change on biodiversity is vitally important, given the role many ecosystems play in regulating climate.
  • Researchers at EMBL have also shown that the relative abundance of bacteria and fungi in terrestrial topsoil is critical for nutrient cycling and may have a profound impact on the appearance of antibiotic resistance genes. Understanding the molecular basis of antibiotic resistance transmission in natural contexts provides a fundamental understanding with wider application, such as potentially assisting drug discovery and treatment approaches.
  • EMBL scientists have also developed computational tools, including lightweight apps, to enable genome-based surveillance of infectious diseases. Scientists across EMBL and its member states are carrying out a range of studies to study the emergence and spread of pathogens. This is highly relevant, given that biodiversity loss facilitates the emergence of new pathogens and frequently increases rates of transmission.
  • Finally, in the context of human health, a plethora of studies now demonstrate correlations between gut microbiome composition, nutrition, and common disorders such as metabolic disease or cancer. The hope is that these correlations can translate into therapies using mechanism-based approaches.

EMBL researchers will continue to explore these avenues, in addition to pursuing new questions made possible under the new programme with its wider scope.

The tools to study molecular biology in context

Pushing the boundaries of molecular biology research requires EMBL scientists to embrace new tools and innovations as well as being part of that technological innovation.

“Over recent decades, there have been remarkable molecular insights based on model organisms ranging from bacteria to animals, under defined lab conditions. However, life does not happen in isolation,” Professor Heard said. “From humans in cities, to plankton in oceans or microbes in topsoil or in the human gut, every organism in nature is part of a complex and dynamic ecosystem, and we need to grasp the molecular mechanisms of life in these natural contexts.”

Molecular biologists have now acquired an array of tools to probe and decipher the molecular mechanisms that underlie organisms’ variability and survival, not just in a lab setting but in the wild. A variety of imaging tools can capture ‘snapshots’ of organisms, tissues, cells, and their inner organelles in situ. Scientists can sequence full genomes, analyse an organism’s complement of proteins, metabolites, and transcriptomes in different physiological or diseased states, and offer detailed information about these entities’ structure and function.

Molecular biologists have always been interested in understanding the underpinning mechanisms of life. Now, we are at a critical turning point where we can help illuminate how life works in an interconnected, constantly changing world.

EMBL Director General Edith Heard

Additionally, new technologies are being developed to measure ecosystem components – from molecules to cells, organisms, populations, and communities – in an unprecedented fashion and while factoring in chemical and physical environmental parameters. Advances in computational power and artificial intelligence also enable rigorous analysis and creative integration of these data. This tremendous technological progress in life sciences can now be coupled with the capacity to gather and analyse data of greater scope, resolution, and quality than ever before.

This means that scientists can collect measurements of environmental context systematically, answer fundamental questions about life in context, and integrate a new level of complexity and understanding into the study of biology. With the new programme, EMBL aims to serve as a nexus for this interdisciplinary, collaborative approach.

Building capacity at EMBL and beyond

Through this new programme, EMBL will also build on its existing and globally recognised expertise in areas such as molecular and cellular biology, structural biology and developmental biology, and expand into new areas including planetary biology, human ecosystems, infection biology, and microbial ecosystems. Developing advanced data sciences and theoretical approaches will be central to the research strategy.

The new programme will expand EMBL’s multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to its research, services, and training. Through close collaborations across scientific domains and within all of EMBL’s member states, EMBL will build bridges with new disciplines, including ecology and epidemiology, while keeping a firm foundation in molecular biology. EMBL will also look to train a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists who will address real-life scientific questions and prepare for future challenges. And while this programme expands EMBL’s purview in certain areas, its research mission remains the same: to better understand the molecular basis of life.

Over the next five years, EMBL will increasingly add to the resources it provides researchers to facilitate this expansion of mission and connect to new expertise thanks to scientists from member states.

For example, by collaborating with ecologists, zoologists, environmental scientists, and epidemiologists, EMBL will launch a new mobile laboratory service with state-of-the-art molecular technologies to explore land-water interfaces across Europe. This will be done together with the European Marine Biological Resource Centre and other national stakeholders. It’s this kind of collaboration that can maximise European science funding while broadening research perspective in this new era of European life science research.

Additionally, the new EMBL Imaging Centre will increase capabilities and expand training opportunities, attracting users from all over Europe, while macromolecular crystallography (MX) and small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) at EMBL’s Grenoble and Hamburg sites will pilot new services with input from the structural biology community at large.

“The advances in technology that will allow EMBL’s evolution will also raise the capacity of our collaborators in other disciplines, such as ecologists, epidemiologists, and engineers,” Professor Heard said. “Molecular biologists have always been interested in understanding the underpinning mechanisms of life. Now, we are at a critical turning point where we can help illuminate how life works in an interconnected, constantly changing world. We are excited to embark on this new era, hand in hand with scientists from other fields, in our member states and around the world.”

This article was first published on EMBL News and is also available in Deutsch, Français, Español and Italiano