Multidisciplinarity yields economies of scale at the new EU structural biology hub

In recessionary times, the recurrent EU mantra is in every scientist’s mind: Europe needs hubs of knowledge generation and transfer to improve its declining economy. This also helps face the increasing speed of innovation and technological development. Yet, the problem is that resources are constrained. Hence, in Europe, complex fields of research such as structural biology are implementing the only solution available to large fields of research as a means to ensure their survival in such financially constrained times. They are integrating the infrastructure of expertise, technology platforms and education to further the frontiers of science.

Due to the growing complexity of technologies, single companies or single academic institutions are not able to access the research infrastructure necessary for multidisciplinary research and innovation. In particular, so-called structural biology research that integrates an understanding of biological structure with cellular function requires equipment at the cutting-edge that is increasingly expensive to build and maintain. And no European country possesses such equipment and expertise in all structural biology technologies to tackles challenging questions regarding a broad array of disease areas such as HIV, autoimmune diseases and cancer that are otherwise not easily addressed.

Indeed, today understanding dynamic processes that are co-ordinated at a cellular level is not possible using a single technology. Thus, it is no longer sufficient to determine simply the structure and biochemical properties of a protein in vitro. In line with the trend towards systems biology, a major challenge now is understanding how that protein functions dynamically within a larger macromolecular assembly or in a cellular pathway or even at the organism level.

European structural biology players are thus pooling their effort into a single umbrella organisation called Instruct, which is part of the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap and was launched over a year ago. This organisation is building a hub providing researchers with access to state-of-the-art technologies and expertise. In addition, it supports European research with an active training programme in structural technologies and methods and a competition for small research and development awards to kick-start innovative research. The first Instruct Biennial Structural Biology Meeting, due to be held at the EMBL Heidelberg Advance Training Centre in May 2013, will showcase the capabilities of integrative structural biology and its impact on biological research.

What is more, Instruct is ideally placed to act as a forum, drawing together scientists from fifteen centres around Europe and other relevant European organisations to develop new approaches. Its goal is to develop harmonised protocols and standards for data management systems that integrate structural information across technical platforms in Europe.

To make this happen, user groups in each of our member state are encouraged to draw up ‘roadmaps’ of the scientific, technical and strategic opportunities for advancing integrative structural biology in their member state. This is done by taking into account relevant commercial organisations. This approach also bears in mind the importance of optimising existing structural biology investments. This led to the creation of networks within our hub where groups of scientists with a common area of interest are working together. More contributors are now welcome to join this effort pooling resources and make the most cost effective use of resources through economy of scale achieved with this initiative.

The Instruct Team

Featured image credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

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