January 2010

University of Oregon’s Institute of Molecular Biology Celebrates 50 Years


A three-tiered cake marks the 50th anniversary of the University of Oregon’s Institute of Molecular Biology.   Credit: Jack Liu.

In 1959, the University of Oregon began a daring experiment. Just six years after James Watson and Francis Crick published their paper on the structure of DNA, the university founded its Institute of Molecular Biology, bringing scientists from chemistry, biology and physics together in a common space to work in a new field that combined all three areas. 

Fifty years later, the risk-takers who founded and nurtured the enterprise have a lot to be proud of, including generations of scientists who were shaped at and inspired by IMB.

The Early Years under Aaron Novick

At an anniversary celebration this fall, institute Director Bruce Bowerman recalled how chemist Terrell L. Hill conceived the institute in 1957 and recruited its first director, biophysicist Aaron Novick.

Hill met Novick when they were both working on the Manhattan Project, and Novick’s time there influenced his career and the institute. Carol Gross, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary symposium, was a graduate student with Novick. She said that, because of Novick, “the institute was very political. Having worked on the atom bomb and knowing its aftermath, Aaron was very antinuclear and antiwar.” She added that Novick’s open, egalitarian attitude set the tone of the institute: “He always ate lunch in the lunchroom so he could participate in discussions [on topics] like: Given rate of protein synthesis, could a spider make silk de novo or did it have to be premade?”

Novick created the nucleus of the IMB by hiring its first members with the help of biochemists John and Charlotte Schellman, who were known for advancing the study of protein structure, folding and stability through techniques such as circular dichroism spectroscopy. Their first hire was Frank W. Stahl, who had just shown, with Matthew Meselson, that DNA is replicated by a semiconservative mechanism. Stahl, now emeritus, continues to focus on the mechanisms of meiotic recombination. In a recent biology department newsletter, he said the institute was founded on three principles: No one would be called “professor” or “doctor,” facilities would be shared and new hires would recruit new members.

Oregon Makes a Splash with Zebrafish

In keeping with the last principle, in 1960, Stahl recruited phage biologist George Streisinger, whose work illustrates the collaborative, multidisciplinary philosophy of the IMB: Streisinger generated a series of T4 lysozyme mutants that were used by protein biochemists like the Schellmans and Rick Dahlquist and biophysicists like Brian W. Matthews, S. James Remington and Joan Wozniak for studies on protein structure and thermostability.

In the 1970s, Streisinger used his knowledge of aquarium fish to develop the zebrafish as a research model. Zebrafish are small, hardy and easily bred, developing from transparent egg to fish in 24 hours. Streisinger realized that zebrafish could be used as a vertebrate model for studies on development and behavior that had previously used fruit flies. So, he developed techniques for breeding, mutagenizing and screening zebrafish, including generating haploid fish for easy phenotypic analysis. The University of Oregon continues to be internationally recognized for zebrafish research.

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