Biozentrum History

The Biozentrum – its history and role

1965-1970 – The pioneer concept

The potential of molecular biological research was already recognized in Switzerland in the 1960s, although only by a few researchers. In view of the great expectations for future solutions to health problems through biological research, and the need to establish cutting-edge education for medical and biology students, the general concept of the Basel Biozentrum was created in 1965. Biology questions related to cells and proteins were to be addressed by molecular biological, chemical, and physical methods. The concept envisaged that various institutes and departments would be drawn closer together, not only spatially but also intellectually. Two eight-story buildings were planned for the research facility, together with a two-story connecting building for teaching and centralized services.

This idea was not considered very favorably by the Swiss Scientific Council, whose view was that "Besides Geneva and Zurich, already specializing in molecular genetics, Switzerland does not need a third center for such esoteric research". The predicted broad economic and social effects of this new discipline were still not taken seriously at that time. Nevertheless, excavation for the foundations of the first laboratory began on the Schällenmätteli site in 1968, and a high-ranking board of trustees led by Arnold Schneider, a member of the Cantonal Executive Council, was promoting the Biozentrum’s development.

The most important promotors from science, academia, and private industry were:

  • Eduard Kellenberger (scientific researcher in Geneva at the time; professor at the Biozentrum from 1970)

  • Alfred Pletscher (head of research at Hoffmann La Roche at the time)

  • Hubert Bloch (head of pharmaceutical research at Ciba at the time)

  • Christoph Tamm (professor of Organic Chemistry at the time, and later Rector)

  • Arnold Schneider (head of the Department of Education at the time)

1971-1975 – Development

At the time of its opening in 1971, the Biozentrum Basel was the only one of its kind in Europe. The innovation was marked by its interdisciplinary approach and the arrangement of centralized services with installations on the individual floors. The first professors were appointed and a unique concept for the new "Biology II" studies was developed: a two-year foundation course in mathematics, physics and chemistry provided the basis for more detailed studies in the form of block courses in biochemistry, biophysical chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology/neurobiology, structural biology, and cell biology. Close liaison with ongoing research was to enable students to start their own research work quickly. Great emphasis was placed on educating postgraduate students for doctoral degrees and in supplying places for postdoctoral researchers.

A further breakthrough in 1974 was the introduction of the position of project leader, equivalent to that of an assistant professor today.

The founding professors in 1974 were:

Molecular microbiology

Eduard Kellenberger
Werner Arber

Biophysical chemistry

Gerhard Schwarz
Jürgen Engel
Kaspar Kirschner
Joachim Seelig

Pharmacology

Karl Bucher
Franz Grün
Hans Thoenen

Structural biology

Richard Franklin
Johan N. Jansonius

Biochemistry

Max M. Burger
Gottfried Schatz

Developmental biology/genetics

Walter J. Gehring

1976-1980 – The Nobel Prize

The Biozentrum soon became a great success. Its crowning achievement was the Nobel Prize for Medicine, awarded in 1978 to Professor Werner Arber, together with two American researchers. Their discovery, the restriction enzyme, which cuts DNA strand molecules like a pair of scissors, is still one of the most important tools in molecular biology. The Nobel Prize was the cause of great celebration, and all Basel joined in.

In 1978, the Biozentrum, which had been “independent” up to then, was integrated as a department into the University of Basel.

1981-1985 – Opening up to new technology

The Biozentrum entered the 1980s with a staff of nearly three hundred. There was ever closer collaboration with the Basel Institute of Immunology (Hoffmann-La Roche) and the Friedrich Miescher Institute (Ciba-Geigy). And technological advances meant fundamental changes to the research methods employed: In 1985, the Biozentrum was connected to the equipment of the university computer center. This allowed the scientists to access information technology and laid the foundations for bioinformatics, with its computer simulations and modeling techniques.

1986-1990 – Gaining insight and crossing borders

With the incorporation of the Maurice E. Müller Institute for High Resolution Electron Microscopy – made possible by a generous donation from the Maurice E. Müller Foundation and opened in 1986 – the Biozentrum became a world-renowned center of excellence for determining the structures of biomolecules.

In 1989, in the context of molecular microbiology, the Biozentrum participated in the creation of the tri-national EUCOR study program in biotechnology, a cross-border cooperation between the universities of Basel, Strasbourg, Freiburg im Breisgau, and Karlsruhe.

1991-1995 – New focuses of research

The Biozentrum was by now an international player in the top league of molecular biological research institutes. Even so, induced by a Hayek report, there were voices calling for a reduction in the size of the Biozentrum, to be achieved by significant staff redundancies. The Biozentrum made a commitment to three research priorities for the next ten years, to which it remains loyal even today: the structure and functioning of biological molecules; the growth of cells and the development of organisms; and the functioning of the brain (neurobiology).

1996-2000 – Networking

In 1996, what is now the "Center of Competence and Excellence in Neuroscience" was founded by the University, the University Hospital, the Friedrich Miescher Institute and the pharmaceutical industry to further the networking of students and researchers in the neurosciences. "Neurex", the largest alliance of neurobiologists, was also set up with the participation of the Universities of Basel, Freiburg im Breisgau und Strasbourg. Today, Neurex has 100 laboratory groups and about 1000 researchers.

Thanks to the generous support of the local pharmaceutical industry, the Biozentrum was able to be the first institution in Basel to enlarge its platform for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy with the installation of a new 800 MHz NMR spectrometer. This high-tech equipment was also to be used by the medical institutes and the chemical industry for diagnostic purposes.

As a further technical innovation, scanning electron microscopy from the Bernoullianum in Basel was combined with the Biozentrum’s department of electron microscopy to form the Microscopy Center of the University of Basel.

2001-2005 – The new wave

The high quality of the education available at the Biozentrum paid dividends: by 2001 more than 300 professors who had obtained at least part of their education at the Biozentrum were working in Switzerland or abroad. And in addition, more than 650 diplomas and 555 doctorates had been awarded. The Bologna reforms then initiated the important educational change to the Bachelor/Master system.

The rapidly increasing understanding of life processes gave rise to new branches of research. At the same time, a new generation took over with many new appointees as the original professors retired. This allowed the development of two new core areas: bioinformatics/systems biology and bacterial infection biology.

Together with the founding partners, the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, the University of Basel was involved in developing the national SystemsX initiative in the field of systems biology. The management of three of the federally financed SystemsX projects was entrusted to the Biozentrum.

2006-2010 – The latest achievements

The Biozentrum, with some 200 scientific publications annually, is in the top 25% of the world rankings.

In 2007, thanks to the dedication of Professor Joachim Seelig, and with funds from the Werner Siemens Foundation, the Biozentrum established a prestigious education program. The award of annual fellowships helps to encourage the best-qualified PhD students, enhance Basel’s reputation as a center of excellence in the life sciences, and strengthen international cooperation.

In Basel, more new networks have been established, in which Biozentrum researchers play an important part. These include the "Basel Signalling Alliance", the "Neuroscience Network Basel", and the "Basel Stem Cell Network". The last of these is dedicated to developmental biology and regenerative medicine – potential therapeutic options for the 21st century. And finally, the University, the University Hospital and Hoffmann-La Roche have set up a research network for the furtherance of personalized medicine.

2011 – The "new" Biozentrum – an international stronghold

Many research centers, in all parts of the world, have followed the example of the Biozentrum – in fact, even the name Biozentrum has been copied many times. In the future, the Biozentrum will continue to strive for excellence in teaching and research, for state-of-the-art infrastructure, and for qualitative growth. At present, about 500 people are working at the Biozentrum, including scientists from over 40 nations. But the Biozentrum is bursting at the seams. From 2019, a seventy-meter-high tower will provide the Biozentrum, that stronghold of science, with a new home. The "new" Biozentrum of the University of Basel will remain a strong partner in life sciences at Basel and will open a new chapter in its story of success.