Credit for all photos: MRC-LMB
The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) is world-renowned for a variety of reasons—first, it is known as one of the birthplaces of modern molecular biology. Techniques including DNA sequencing, methods for determining the 3D structure of proteins, and the development of monoclonal antibodies were all pioneered at the lab. It has also earned the nickname of “Nobel Prize Factory,” as the work of LMB scientists has attracted 12 Nobel Prizes over the years, in addition to dozens of Royal Society awards. The current facility is located on the sprawling Cambridge Biomedical Campus (Cambridge, UK); “neighbors” include Astra Zeneca’s world headquarters, and Royal Papworth Heart and Lung Hospital will be opening nearby this year, as well as a new children’s hospital. Within a few years, there will be 20,000 people working in LMB’s backyard. “Being part of something so diverse yet so relevant to what we do is very exciting and will hopefully help us to do even better science in the future,” says Jan Löwe, director of LMB.
In 2013, LMB staff moved into its current facility—a purpose-built building designed by RMJM, one of the largest architecture and design networks in the world, to provide an environment that drives innovation and collaboration. Construction of the new facility cost $276,416,000 (£212 million) and took five years to complete. The facility encompasses more than 290,000 square feet that is divided among three main floors. The structure of the building resembles a paired chromosome with two long laboratory areas joined by a spacious atrium—a fitting choice, as Stephen Holmes, head of capital development projects at LMB, explains, “DNA has always been at the heart of LMB research.” The atrium can be crossed at four points on each level, allowing easy access and appreciation of the layout of the building. Open, airy walkways and designated “breakout areas” encourage easy navigation, interaction, and collaboration.
Thoughtful design and attention to detail were considered in every step when constructing the facility. For example, all heavy plant equipment servicing the building is housed either in a separate energy center or in four stainless steel-clad towers linked to the building. This removes weight and sources of vibration from the laboratory spaces. Between the floors are full-height interstitial service voids (ISVs), which house the ductwork, pipes, and services. These ISVs can be accessed directly for maintenance and modifications without entering the laboratory spaces, allowing minimal disruption when changes need to be made. As Löwe explains, it was also important to expand the laboratory space to fit new equipment but without causing isolation among staff. A common problem among newly built, large research buildings is that the staff can be too spread out. “This inhibits interactions, increases the effort of talking to other people, and generally gives the impression that there is a lack of energy,” says Löwe. LMB successfully avoided this in the design of its new facility. “People sit and work close together and feel part of small teams that often span different groups that are placed next to each other. It is a mix of open-plan and small-workgroup designs, with the lab benches right next to the desk areas.” The building houses about 450 scientists, and the main laboratories are in nearly 11,000-square-foot modules.
One interesting feature of the building— and Löwe’s favorite—is the on-site restaurant. Founder of LMB Max Perutz wanted to bring a “continental lifestyle” to the facility, with the idea that providing food, tea, and other refreshments would encourage scientists to engage with each other more frequently in a relaxed setting. “Some of our most successful scientists spend alarming (to outsiders) amounts of time chatting away in the restaurant, having a coffee in the morning, or lunch, or afternoon tea,” says Löwe. The facility also features numerous energysaving elements, such as automatic venetian blinds, heat recovery wheels that exchange energy between outgoing and incoming air, a ground source heat pump, and automatic control of lights to reduce intensity when daylight is available.
Attracting top talent
At its core, LMB is dedicated to the understanding of important biological processes at the levels of atoms, molecules, cells, and organisms. The research teams, which are divided into three divisions of Cell Biology, Neurobiology, and Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry and Structural Studies, all strive to unlock the knowledge needed to solve key problems in human health. “Most regard LMB as the birthplace of molecular biology; the place where it was first and most clearly demonstrated that all of life can be understood at the atomic level as an extremely complicated and beautiful form of chemistry and physics,” says Löwe.
Scientists from more than 50 nationalities are represented at LMB. “The problems we work on are fundamental and universal, and are the same to scientists working in the US, Japan, India, China, Europe, Australia, or the UK,” adds Löwe.
Working at LMB would be a dream job for most biomedical scientists. The facility receives its core funding from the Medical Research Council, so scientists do not need to write grants for funding. This allows teams to target the most important and most difficult scientific problems. Löwe also notes that research groups tend to be small and focused, and many group leaders conduct science themselves. The groups aren’t restricted to specific budgets; rather, they can spend what they need to advance their research. According to its website, LMB received more than $221 million in core funding from 2012 to 2017. “It is about almost absolute scientific freedom, collaboration, and openness, and a desire—instilled upon us by our founders—to go where no one has gone before,” says Löwe.
LMB has a deep history, dating back to 1947. Some of the first team members included pioneer of X-ray crystallography Lawrence Bragg, John Kendrew, Francis Crick, Jim Watson, and Hugh Huxley, who all used Xray crystallography to help solve the first atomic structure ever of a biological macromolecule, hemoglobin. Fast forward to 2017, and LMB’s Richard Henderson was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of high-resolution electron cryomicroscopy, an alternative method that is now fast replacing crystallography as a main structural tool.
But looking toward the future, Löwe says one area of increasing interest for LMB is the brain. Until recently, very little was known about how the human brain functions or what the seemingly infinite number of neurons and cells do for the body. LMB researchers now want to answer questions like: How is information stored in the brain? How is information retrieved and processed? How does neurodegeneration, such as in Alzheimer’s disease, interfere with these processes? “We believe determining the connections between all the neurons and being able to measure the electrical signals will provide those answers over the next one to two decades,” explains Löwe.
LMB is a prime example of how innovative, thoughtful design can have a real impact on not only the progression of research, but also on the well-being of the ones conducting the research.