EMBL history

Sir John Kendrew, EMBL's first Director General, greets the then German Federal Minister for Science and Education

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory was the idea of prominent scientists such as the American physicist and molecular biologist Leo Szilárd and Nobel Prize winners James D. Watson and John C. Kendrew. Their goal was to create a CERN-like supranational research centre to redress the balance in the strongly US-dominated field of molecular biology.

The founding contract of this centre of excellence was signed in July 1974 on a basis of an intergovernmental treaty of nine European countries plus Israel. Since then, the number of member states has increased progressively, with Malta becoming the twentysecond member in 2016.

EMBL's founding father John C. Kendrew served as the first Director General of EMBL until 1982, when he was succeeded by Lennart Philipson. The third Director General, Fotis C. Kafatos, served from April 1993 to April 2005. Iain Mattaj, who was Scientific Director from 1999 until 2005, is EMBL's fourth and current Director General.

The most famous example of research carried out at EMBL is the identification of the genes responsible for establishing the body plan of insect embryos. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus, who analysed this function on a genome-wide scale, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. Today, EMBL is considered Europe's flagship laboratory for basic research in molecular biology, its five European sites attracting both young investigators and established scientists from all over the world.


2017 - EMBL opens a site for research on tissue biology and disease modelling in Barcelona, Spain.

2005 - Professor Iain Mattaj is appointed as EMBL's fourth Director General.

2002 - EMBL participates in completion and analysis of human and other genomes, made publicly accessible on EMBL-EBI’s Ensembl website.

2001 - EMBLEM GmbH, EMBL's technology transfer arm, is established.

1999 - A new programme in Mouse Biology begins operation in Monterotondo near Rome, Italy.

1997 - The EBI is officially opened at Hinxton.

1995 - Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the first systematic genetic analysis of embryonic development in the fruit fly – research conducted at EMBL Heidelberg.

1993 - Fotis Kafatos is appointed as the third Director General of EMBL. The EMBL Data Library moves to EMBL-EBI at Hinxton, near Cambridge, UK.

1988 - EMBL and others establish EMBnet, the international sequence database network.

1984 - EMBL's predoctoral training programme is established.

1982 - Lennart Philipson becomes the second Director General. EMBL is reorganised into new scientific research and instrumentation units.

1981 - The EMBL Data Library is founded – the first central depository of nucleotide sequence data in the world (precursor to EMBL-EBI).

1976 - An agreement is signed establishing a second outstation at the site of the Institut Laue-Langevin in Grenoble.

1975 - Construction of the Heidelberg facility begins. An official agreement is signed to establish an EMBL outstation at the DESY synchrotron ring in Hamburg.

1974 - On 4 July, with the decision of France to ratify the EMBL Agreement, EMBL becomes a legal entity. Sir John Kendrew is appointed as its first Director General.

1973 - Delegates of the participating countries agree to and sign a draft accord in Geneva to establish a European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

1971 - Heidelberg is chosen as the site for EMBL's main laboratory.

1969 - The first proposals to include outstations in addition to the main laboratory and stronger emphasis on technological development and service functions for the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) are made at a meeting at Lake Constance.

1968 - The European Molecular Biology Conference is founded, associating 14 governments with EMBO, providing the organisation with stable funding and scientific independence.

1963 - Scientists at a professional meeting in Ravello, Italy decide to pursue the idea of the laboratory. They form the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in order to realise this goal. International fellowships and advanced courses are added to the EMBO agenda.

1962 - Leó Szilárd, Victor F Weisskopf, James D Watson and John Kendrew meet in Geneva to discuss possibility of establishing an international laboratory for molecular biology.