Molecular biology comes to town

Why Edinburgh opened the world’s first university department dedicated to molecular biology.

The Darwin Tower

The gunmetal doors squeak shut and the old lift wheezes as it hauls me up into the Darwin Building. This drab and now much faded tower stands tall at the south-east corner of the University of Edinburgh’s science campus, The Kings Buildings. The authorities have earmarked the building for gutting and modernisation next year. But big things happened here that have left lasting marks on the history of molecular biology. Before it changes forever, I want to step inside and learn about its origins.

Out of the lift I find Professor David Finnegan in his office. David knows the building well. He first set foot in it just a few months after its 1968 opening, and has since spent the bulk of his career here. From his genetics degree in Adelaide, Finnegan arrived full of youth and enthusiasm to start a PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology. He points out that Edinburgh’s was the first university department devoted to molecular biology in Britain, and so far as we can tell, the first in the world.

The Department opened in 1965 in a temporary home across the campus whilst the Darwin Building was being completed. At this time the science of molecular biology was exploding in power and popularity. The two decades following the Second World War had been heady days for science research in Britain. The Labour government that came to power in 1964 made clear that they would keep the treasury coffers open to researchers.

Shortly before his party’s election victory, Harold Wilson declared that modern Britain would be “forged in the white heat” of technological revolution. Scientific prowess was core to Britain’s self image and, the politicians hoped, key to its continued economic growth.

Basic research was booming but the university sector lagged well behind. In 1963 just 5% of school leavers went to university. Only a quarter of them were women. The 1963 Robbins Report described this prohibitively elitist state of the UK university system in unambiguous terms.

The report, commissioned by Harold Macmillan’s outgoing Conservative government, showed that many talented youngsters were being denied university places. Space was lacking and admissions systems were outdated. Postwar school reforms that had raised the school leaving age and improved standards meant that the problem was getting worse all the time. Robbins recommended rapid and far-reaching overhaul and expansion of the whole university sector.

Money poured in. New universities opened, many colleges gained university status, and most existing universities entered an exciting period of expansion. Today, nearly 50% of young people go to university. It was on the back of these history-making national events that Edinburgh University took a far-sighted decision to open the new department. It would be devoted to high level research and the teaching of molecular biology. It would attract government science funding and bring fresh blood to the vibrant new science.

As rain battered the window, obscuring our view over the southern suburbs of Edinburgh and the rugged Pentland hills beyond, Finnegan outlined the intellectual origins of molecular biology and the Edinburgh Department.

“Even today a geneticist and a biochemist will think about a problem in quite a different way. Only if they come together and manage to fuse those two different approaches in their heads can they really make really significant breakthroughs”, he explained.

Sure enough, the pact between genetics and biochemistry was key to getting the whole endeavour of molecular biology up and running.

In 1941 George Beadle, the geneticist, teamed up with the biochemist Edward Tatum. They studied Neurospora crassa, the reddish-brown mould that flourishes on old bread in warmer climes. Blending the geneticist’s understanding of inheritance and mutation, and the biochemist’s grasp of cellular metabolism, they were the first to explain how genes might actually work.

Beadle and Tatum proposed that each gene controls the production of a single enzyme, with a specific function within the cell. Their hypothesis has since proved an over-simplification, but it triggered many of the key advances that followed.

Like these pioneers of the field, the two founders of Edinburgh’s Molecular Biology Department, Martin Pollock and William (always known as Bill) Hayes, pooled their distinct expertise in biochemistry and genetics. Before becoming an Edinburgh professor, Pollock ran a biochemistry group at London’s National Institute for Medical Research. It focused on the enzymes that underpin bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Hayes was a geneticist. Also using bacteria as a model system, he had headed the Medical Research Council (MRC)-funded Microbial Genetics Research Unit at Hammersmith Hospital in London. Hayes made his mark by describing how bacteria can ‘mate’ by passing genetic material, now known as plasmids, between ‘male’ and ‘female’ bacteria.

According to Pollock’s unpublished 1986 account of the origins of their Edinburgh department, he had got to know Hayes in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s they could see how complementary their two approaches were and started to imagine the potential for cross-fertilisation. They both wanted to teach molecular biology to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Their ideas became serious in 1963 when they wrote a proposal for an “Institute of Molecular Biology”. The MRC turned down their ambitious plans, but in the discussions that followed they agreed to support the formation of a Department of Molecular Biology, slightly scaled down in its scope and expense. Hayes’ MRC group would move in, the MRC would continue to support Pollock and the University would fund several new lectureships.

In the years following its 1965 opening Hayes and Pollock devised the first ever degree course in molecular biology. They also created a unique environment for research and attracted a distinctive and ambitious group of researchers to their new stronghold of molecular biology in the North.

I’ll talk more about what went on in and around the department in future posts, but a key question must be addressed first. By 1965 molecular biology was charging forward into its third decade at full tilt. High profile discoveries were coming thick and fast, but still no-one was teaching in a co-ordinated way. Why did it take quite so long for molecular biology to infiltrate the university scene?

Perhaps part of the problem is the intrinsic inter-disciplinary nature of molecular biology. By involving geneticists, physicists, chemists, informaticians and cell biologists, the subject didn’t fit neatly into the traditional departmental boundaries. Molecular biologists were chasing the fundamental principles of all life. It wouldn’t make sense to shoehorn them into the existing botany, zoology or microbiology departments. Pollock goes further, suggesting outright hostility towards the discipline from some universities:

“So reluctant were they to consider the subject worthy of undergraduate teaching, that they regarded it as a post-graduate excrescence and made its study subservient to chemistry, which had to be passed first”.

But in Edinburgh it seems that Pollock and Hayes found a unique set of people and circumstances. Within the existing departments there were pockets of researchers taking molecular approaches to biological problems. There will be more about them in future posts. Edinburgh was also a powerhouse in the field of animal genetics. Conrad Waddington, the Buchanan Professor of Genetics and a hugely influential character, was open to institutional change and encouraged molecular-level analysis. Pollock describes Michael Swann, professor of Zoology, Dean of the Faculty of Science (later Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University and then Chairman of the BBC), as the other key figure supporting their proposal and encouraging the university to look forward. It may also have helped that the Principal of the university was a scientist: the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Sir Edward Appleton.

Thanks to the vision of Pollock and Hayes and the receptive attitude of the Edinburgh establishment, the Department of Molecular Biology took shape.

Leaving Finnegan’s office, I decide subconsciously not to risk the elderly lift and scamper down five flights of stairs instead. Although the building that housed the pioneering department is dilapidated and soon to be gutted, its legacy will prove more permanent. As stated emphatically in a pamphlet written for the opening of the Darwin Building in 1968:

“It is the natural aim of all kinds of biology to become ‘molecular’.”

Four and a half decades on, this aspiration has been borne out. The Edinburgh department played its role in the transformation. It served as the hub for an expansive network of innovative scientists that claimed Edinburgh’s place in the history of molecular biology.

Originally published at moleculartinkering.wordpress.com on November 11, 2014.