Département de biologie moléculaire
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Molecular Biology in Geneva – 57 years, six Hall of Fames, and two Nobel prizes

EM d'un phage T4, 1958
EM of phage T4, 1958

Molecular biology in Geneva can trace its early roots to the Institute of Physics of the University of Geneva. In 1931, the Swiss experimental physicist Jean Weigle (Tribute  ) became director of this Institute and, a decade later, started to develop the first electron microscope made in Switzerland. He was helped in his continual efforts to improve the microscope by Edouard Kellenberger (from the ETH; Hall of Fame  ), also a physicist. In 1948, Jean Weigle, at the age of 47, resigned from the faculty of the University of Geneva and went to Caltech in California to work in the group of Max Delbrück, another physicist who played a key role in the early development of molecular biology. There, he concentrated on the study of the genetics of bacterial viruses (bacteriophages), but still visited his old laboratory in Geneva each summer. The competence of Jean Weigle in physics and his new interest in biology gave him an interdisciplinary advantage in the study of bacteriophages. When he came to visit his former laboratory in Geneva, Weigle brought fresh ideas, mutants, and reagents from Caltech and other leading research centers spreading the rise of bacterial genetics. Edouard Kelleberger shifted his interests from improving instrumentation to the development of new methods, together with Antoinette Ryter, to observe bacteriophages using the electron microscope.

Werner Arber, Edouard Kellenberger and Jean Weigle, 1958
Werner Arber, Edouard Kellenberger and Jean Weigle, 1958

In 1953, Edouard Kellenberger became director of the Biophysics Laboratory where he formed a group of researchers to work on the genetics of bacteriophages and develop new methods to observe them with the electron microscope. This group included Werner Arber (Hall of Fame  ), who became his first assistant in 1953, Grete Kellenberger-Gujer (Tribute  ), Janine Séchaud, and Antoinette Ryter, who all worked on the genetics of the bacteriophage T4 and electron miscopscopy.

In the beginning of the 60s, the Biophysics Laboratory expanded by the recruitment of Richard Epstein (UCLA), while Alfred Tissières (Hall of Fame , from Harvard) and Pierre-François Spahr (Harvard) joined a new Biochemical Genetics Laboratory, where they worked on the biosynthesis of proteins and transcription. In 1963, both laboratories became part of a newly created Institute of Molecular Biology, the first in Switzerland. The Institute offered a Certificate of specialization in molecular biology where Ulrich Laemmli (Hall of Fame  ), Bernard Hirt, and Dimitri Karamata formed the first class.

1978 Nobel prize

Edouard Kellenberger clearly had an eye for talent. In 1959, Kellenberger hired Werner Arber, who had just spent a postdoc in the United-States, to become faculty member. Arber stayed until 1970 and during these six years, he worked with his assistant Daisy Dussoux on the mechanism by which bacteria resist infection by bacteriophages. His research led to the discovery of restriction enzymes, which proved essential for the development of molecular biology. For this discovery he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1978 , together with Hamilton Smith and Daniel Nathans.

Edouard Kellenberger also engaged Jacques Dubochet (Hall of Fame  ) who had just graduated in physics from the École Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (now EPFL) as a student in his laboratory. Dubochet received his Certificate of specialization in molecular biology in 1969 and worked towards his PhD under Kellenberger. After his defending his thesis at the University of Basle in 1973 Jacques Dubochet went to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, where he developed a new technique for freezing biological material, leading to the birth of cryo-electron microscopy. He was then appointed professor at the University of Lausanne where he continued to improve microscopy techniques to visualize biological structures. These efforts were rewarded by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry  together with Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson in 2017. Sadly, Edouard Kellenberger passed away in 2004 (Obituary  ) and thus could not celebrate the second time one of his mentees (after Werner Arber) received this distinction.

In 1969, Edouard Kellenberger and Werner Arber went to Basle to create a new research center, the Biozentrum. In Geneva, the Department of Molecular Biology was created from the Institute of Molecular Biology and in 1970 it moved to a new building (Sciences II). In 1971, Lucien Caro (from the Rockefeller Institute), Harvey Eisen (from UCSF), Jeffrey Miller (from CSH) and Roger Weil (from UNIL) joined Alfred Tissières, Pierre-François Spahr and Richard Epstein. Throughout the following years, new professors joined the Department: Bernard Allet (retired), Erich Nigg (currently, director of the Biozentrum), Susan Gasser (currently, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute), Ulrich Laemmli (Hall of Fame  , honorary professor), Jean-David Rochaix (retired), Ueli Schibler (Hall of Fame  , retired), David Shore, Robbie Loewith, Thanos Halazonetis, Thomas Schalch, Florian Steiner and Ramesh Pillai.

In 2003, the Department moved again to a new building, in Sciences III, to join the other Departments of the Section of Biology.

(On the early history of molecular biology in Geneva, see Strasser 2006 )