Inside the Nobel Prize factory

Yet again the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge has won the highest accolade. Steve Connor visits an institution whose uniquely inspiring atmosphere has given the world an unprecedented twelve laureates

Saturday 25 January 2014 02:31

Standing outside the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge there is little indication that this unattractive block of bricks houses the most successful research centre in Britain – if not the world – in terms of Nobel prizes.

It is a typical example of Sixties neo-brutalist architecture, with a 21st-century afterthought jutting rather incongruously from the front porch like a crab on stilts. Visitors and patients at the nearby Addenbrooke's Hospital could be forgiven for walking past the LMB without realising that this rather nondescript suite of laboratories can now lay claim to at least 13 Nobels, including the three picked up last week by its former researchers Sydney Brenner, Sir John Sulston and Robert Horvitz.

The typical paraphernalia of science litters the corridors of the LMB. Freezers, cabinets, centrifuge machines and other "white goods" of the modern research unit are stacked along the walls to exploit every scrap of space. The overcrowded and messy laboratories opening off each corridor are no different to those you would expect to see in universities anywhere in the world. Walking into these scientific workshops, there is again nothing that explains why this laboratory, of all those in Britain, should be so successful in winning the most coveted prize in science.

It is only when you talk to the scientists themselves that something special begins to emerge. They talk about not having to suffer the bureaucracy that dogs their university colleagues; the sense of community spirit and co-operation within the lab; and the freedom they have been given to chase their dreams of discovery. Above all, they talk about the "LMB culture" – something that everyone appears to be aware of, but few can define precisely.

Nevertheless, it is this culture that has fostered perhaps the most successful research operation in biology. Some have likened the place to a Nobel-prize factory, churning out world-beating discoveries almost to order. But that is not an analogy that draws favour with Sir Aaron Klug, one of the LMB's former directors and himself a Nobel laureate. "In a factory you know what you're going to make. Here we plant things that grow and mature. It takes a long time," he says.

If there is any single element that typifies the LMB culture it is the time that its scientists are given to study a problem. It is said that Fred Sanger, one of the few scientists to win two Nobels, went through a fallow patch lasting many years before he hit his second rich vein of discovery. Equally, John Walker, who won a Nobel for his research on the energy molecules of the cell, would not have solved the problem if he had had to rely on short-term grants.

Right from the outset, the ethos of those who created the LMB was to give scientists the time and the freedom – in other words, the money – to do what they wanted. Unlike so many others elsewhere, Francis Crick and Jim Watson, the laboratory's two most famous Nobel laureates, were never asked to fill in performance charts or accountability forms in the run-up to their discovery of the DNA double helix.

The origins of the laboratory stem from a meeting in 1947 at the Athenaeum, the London club, of Sir Edward Mellanby, the formidable head of the Medical Research Council at the time, and the physicist Sir Lawrence Bragg who wanted a new unit to study the molecular structure of living things. As they lunched, Mellanby agreed to set aside money to fund a laboratory with John Kendrew and Max Perutz as its founding members. The pair went on to win joint Nobel prizes for their work on the structure of proteins.

Perutz, who died this year, stamped his personality on the new research centre. "Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other," he wrote in 1996. He set up a lab canteen managed by his wife, Gisela, to stimulate the exchange of ideas on a daily basis. He insisted that equipment should be shared rather than be jealously guarded like private property, and when the new building project ran short of funds he suggested that money could be saved by leaving locks off the doors, to symbolise an absence of secrets.

Richard Henderson, the current director of the LMB, carries on the Perutz tradition. The laboratory's budget comes as a block directly from the Medical Research Council (which is why the formal name of the LMB is the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) and the money is administered centrally. This means that laboratory equipment, stores, supplies and services are effectively shared by all the scientists. "I also like to think that everyone shares in the success of any one individual," says Henderson.

There is a very loose hierarchy within the lab, which is divided into five divisions with a further split into teams of three to five researchers led by a group leader. Occasionally the groups can be larger, but never as large as those seen in America, where teams of 10, 20 or even 30 scientists may work on a single project. The small size of the research groups is another factor that makes the LMB special, says Hugh Pelham, the deputy director. "The trouble with large groups is that they tend to have a group philosophy, or mentality, which means you think along one line and not about the alternatives," he says. "Whereas in this place we try to have lots of people who will challenge you. It's not competition, it's debate."

There is, nevertheless, a pervasive awareness of the need to succeed – and in scientific terms, this means being the first to publish. "The art of scientific research is to choose interesting and important problems, but not ones that are so difficult you can't solve them in a reasonable time," says Sir Aaron. For all its exalted status and unique tradition, the LMB is not immune to probing by politicians and accountants who want to know what benefits the scientific research they are funding is going to produce for medicine and society. "They would ask us what hypothesis were we testing. Actually a lot of the time we weren't testing any hypothesis – we were just exploring. Now there are pressures of accountability. You practically have to tell them what you are going to discover."

Today more than ever, there is pressure on the LMB to achieve great things. This will only be possible if its unique tradition is respected, Sir Aaron says. "If the lab is allowed to continue in the spirit in which it's been supported until now, I think there will be many more discoveries to be made."

Sir John Sulston 2002 Medicine/Physiology

British. Awarded joint prize for genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

Robert Horvitz 2002 Medicine/Physiology

American. Awarded joint prize for genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

Sydney Brenner 2002 Medicine/Physiology

South African born. Joint prize for genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

John Walker 1997 Chemistry

British. Gained prize for explaining "the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate".

Fred Sanger 1958 and 1980 Chemistry

British. Awarded first prize for work on structure of proteins and a joint prize for base sequences in nucleic acids.

Georges Köhler 1984 Physiology/Medicine

German. Awarded joint prize for work on immune system theories and developing monoclonal antibodies.

Jim Watson 1962 Physiology/Medicine

American. Awarded prize for joint discovery concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids.

Cesar Milstein 1984 Physiology/Medicine

Argentinian born. Awarded joint prize for work on immune system theories and developing monoclonal antibodies.

Francis Crick 1962 Physiology/Medicine

British. Awarded prize for joint discovery concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids.

John Kendrew 1962 Chemistry

British. Awarded joint prize with Max Perutz for their studies of structures of globular proteins.

Max Perutz 1962 Chemistry

Austrian born. Awarded joint prize with John Kendrew for their studies of structures of globular proteins.

Sir Aaron Klug 1982 Chemistry

Lithuanian born. Awarded prize for work on crystallographic electron microscopy and nucleic acid-protein complexes.

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