Originally created 02/24/03

Crick and Watson lab still powerhouse of science



CAMBRIDGE, England -- Michael Fuller retired six years ago, but he can't stay away from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

He was there when Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the secret of DNA, a breakthrough that sparked a whole new golden age in science. And now and then, a repentant soul sends him a stolen piece of the original model of the double helix.

"Gradually, the pieces started to disappear," said Fuller. "And they're now turning up in everybody's desk drawers in just about every laboratory in the world."

So far, three bits have been returned - one from the United States just four weeks ago.

"He was an American chap who did his Ph.D. here and who is now a very eminent scientist. He had a guilty conscience, wrote and said, 'Here it is,"' Fuller said.

Fuller, 66, was a 16-year-old lab gopher at the time of the Crick and Watson discovery in 1953.

Since then he has seen some of the greatest minds in science walk through the doors of the lab, which can so far lay claim to an extraordinary 13 Nobel prizes.

The first came in 1958 to Fred Sanger for his work on the structure of insulin. Most recently, three of the lab's alumni - John Sulston, Sydney Brenner and Robert Horvitz - shared the 2002 Nobel medicine prize for their work on how genes regulate organ development and how cells die.

At the time when Crick and Watson made their breakthrough, the lab was still housed within the legendary Cavendish Laboratory; the pair worked in a dingy room measuring 20 feet by 20 feet.

The lab, now called the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, or MRC LMB, has been housed since 1961 in another rather ordinary red brick building.

There's no hint from the outside that this laboratory has kept producing major scientific discoveries.

"It's had several second winds. The first wave was when the DNA structure and protein structure came out. And then in the early '60s, people said the lab's had it. It's done its thing, what can they do next?" said researcher Venki Ramakrishnan. "But it has kept going."

Aside from Crick and Watson's discovery, other important work to have come out of the lab includes the structure of hemoglobin, the discovery that muscle contracts by a sliding filament, the production of important proteins called monoclonal antibodies and a key method for unraveling the genetic code.

What is it about the place that it keeps churning out world-beating science?

The researchers there put much of the lab's success down to a culture that keeps the research groups small and enables them to dedicate themselves solely to the major questions of science without distractions such as teaching undergraduates, sitting on committees, writing textbooks or making frequent grant applications.

There are 350 scientists working in groups of three to five people each. In most university laboratories, the groups consist of 20 or even 30 scientists.

"They work on the big stuff," said Ramakrishnan, who came from the United States to work at the lab. "The place has a tradition of focusing on important, fundamental problems, without regard to how difficult they are or whether you are going to have results in the next year or two."

Another important aspect is that the money is communual.

"One check is written for the whole lab, whereas in many universities, particularly in the States, each group writes its own grant and is then very possessive about the equipment they've got and the resources they have," said Hugh Pelham, deputy director of the lab. "They don't want to waste time giving advice to you because they are worried about making their own progress so that they are more competitive - with you, in fact - for the next round of grant funding."

It's a formula that has given the lab a worldwide reputation as something of a gem.

"It really is special and there really is no place like it in the world," says Cynthia Kenyon, a University of California, San Francisco scientist who worked at the Cambridge lab in the early 1980s as a post-doctoral researcher.

"There's something about the culture there that attracts a certain kind of very thoughtful, inventive kind of person," she said. "The whole thing operates at a very high level. Every single person there has a great mind. I've never seen anything like it."

On the Net:

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology: http://www2.mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk/