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Spain Aims to Lure Systems Biologists to a Place in the Sun

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Science  02 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5778, pp. 1295a
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5778.1295a

BARCELONA—In a stylish marriage, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is teaming up with the Spanish government to create a new center for the development of mathematical models of living systems. The venture, funded by Spain, will be based at a beachfront research park that opened here last month. The partnership creates a new southern outpost of the Heidelberg-based EMBL, in partnership with Barcelona's new Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG).

Spain has agreed to invest $16.5 million over the next 9 years to support six research groups in systems biology as part of a broader push to boost Barcelona's scientific profile. The systems biologists will join hundreds of other researchers in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (BBRP), which will house up to 80 research groups studying topics as diverse as embryonic stem cells, genetic sequencing, and the effects of environmental pollutants.

“With BBRP, we want Barcelona to become a big capital of knowledge in southern Europe,” says pharmacologist Jordi Camí, the park's general director and former head of Barcelona's Municipal Institute of Medical Research (IMIM). In addition to the EMBL offshoot, the park will house IMIM and its respected department of environmental epidemiology, a 400-bed hospital, the Pompeu Fabra University Experimental and Health Sciences Department, a Center of Regenerative Medicine, and the CRG, which will support research on genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics, as well as systems biology. A new Institute of High Technology will provide access to sophisticated imaging with a cyclotron and two positron emission scanners.

At the helm of the EMBL/CRG unit will be Luis Serrano, currently coordinator of the EMBL Structural and Computational Biology Unit in Heidelberg. The EMBL/CRG groups will work with a variety of systems, including RNA interference, biochemical networks, and mouse development. Serrano says all groups will be working to develop “a quantitative understanding of biological systems that allows you to make testable predictions.” Two principal investigators have been appointed, and the mixed EMBL/CRG search committee has plans to hire three more.

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Barcelona launched a new biomedical park in May.


Like their counterparts at EMBL, the researchers will receive 5-year contracts, renewable for an additional 4 years. Serrano says he hopes the system will encourage “a spirit of rotation and the removal of the ‘position for life’ philosophy” that is prevalent in Spanish science. Organizers also hope the EMBL brand name will help the unit attract international talent.

Ben Lehner, an RNA interference scientist at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K., has been hired to lead one of the research groups at the Systems Biology unit. He says he's impressed by “how serious the Catalan government is about turning Barcelona into an international hub for biomedical research.” He thinks it may be a “golden” time for recruiting talent back to Europe in light of “the current crisis in science funding that we are seeing in the United States.”

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