The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) has been a leading force in biological discovery and research training since its founding in 1888. During the summer of 2013 the laboratory celebrated its 125th anniversary and began writing a new chapter in its remarkable history with the announcement of an exciting affiliation with the internationally renowned University of Chicago.

Located in the south-western corner of Cape Cod in the seaside village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Americas. From the beginning, the MBL has been driving fundamental advances in the biological sciences and catalysing scientific careers by providing an intellectual home for leading biologists and promising students who gather from around the world to collaborate across disciplines.

The MBL was founded in 1888 by the Women’s Education Association of Boston and the Boston Society of Natural History. Its roots and mantra ‘study nature not books’, can be traced to the great laboratories of Europe— the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Roscoff, Villefrance-sur-mer—and the more modest Anderson School of Natural History, founded by Harvard’s Louis Agassiz (who coined the mantra) on the desolate island of Penikese, located just south of Woods Hole.

There a group of young teachers and biologists—among them the MBL’s first director and later University of Chicago professor Charles Otis Whitman—gathered for two summers in the mid-19th century. Many would eventually help shape the early history of the MBL and its impact on 20th century biology more generally.

Under the early leadership of Whitman and others from universities around the country, the MBL built its reputation as, in the words of essayist Lewis Thomas, America’s ‘National Biological Laboratory’. A summer institution for its first eight decades, the MBL’s educational and research programmes attracted the world’s top biologists and their families, who relished the opportunity to gather, collaborate and exchange ideas in a beautiful location.

Eggs from sea urchins are important tools for research on cell division.

‘The history of the [MBL] is more than the history of a distinguished institution. It is also the history of biology itself during the past 100 years’, wrote science historian Garland Allen in 1988 during the MBL’s Centennial.

The MBL’s impact on the biological sciences has been significant, especially for an institution of its size. Since its founding, more than 50 Nobel Laureates have been associated with the MBL, either as students, faculty or researchers. Entire fields of scientific endeavour—developmental biology, neurobiology and ecosystems science, for example—have been nurtured here.

While the MBL’s name would suggest that its science is largely marine-focused, its mission has always been to conduct creative, basic research and provide discovery-based training in biology. Of course, the MBL’s Woods Hole location, which is a day’s cruise from the cold waters of the Labrador Current and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream just offshore, means that scientists have easy access to a wide variety of marine species to use as models for their studies.

Basic research using these locally abundant organisms has resulted in a greater understanding of biological processes common to all living things, including humans. By studying the giant axon of squid, for example, MBL scientists discovered how nerve cells generate electrical impulses, how organelles and proteins are transported within them, and how ion channels facilitate the exchange of electrical current across the cell membrane.

Research-based education programmes are a hallmark of the MBL. Students regularly report that their experiences in MBL courses are ‘transformative’ and ‘career-changing’. Image: Tom Kleindinst.

Studies using the horseshoe crab uncovered the basic mechanisms of photoreceptor function. And studies of its blood revealed its special ability to clot when exposed to bacterial endotoxins, resulting in the development of an assay now used worldwide to test for contaminants in drugs and other pharmaceutical products.

The MBL’s contributions to cell biology, developmental biology and reproductive biology are also significant. Work using eggs of surf clams and sea urchins provided fundamental information about how certain proteins regulate cell division. The MBL’s role in the development of new technologies in microscopy and imaging are also legendary, and the availability of the latest instrumentation in the MBL’s renowned summer courses puts its international faculty and students at the forefront of experimentation.

The MBL’s research-based summer education programmes are a hallmark of the institution. The Physiology and Embryology courses are almost as old as the institution itself, but the MBL’s commitment to regularly refreshing course leadership and focus keeps these and all the MBL’s educational programmes at the leading edge of their fields. In turn, the outstanding faculty—recruited from universities worldwide—remark that the fresh perspectives, creativity and enthusiasm of these bright students inspire them to do some of their own best work. The MBL evolved from a summer institution to a year-round enterprise in the latter part of the 20th century. Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi was one of the first to set up a yearround laboratory at the MBL in the late 1940s, and celebrated light microscopist and cell biologist Shinya Inoué followed in the 1970s.

A view of the MBL from Eel Pond. Image: Tom Kleindinst

The MBL’s first fully-formed resident research programme—the Ecosystems Center—was established in 1975. With an early focus on studying the global carbon cycle, the Ecosystems Center has long been a leader in basic ecological research. The Center is among the world’s best, and its scientists serve on the world stage, co-authoring key environmental documents such as the latest Intergovernmental Policy on Climate Change report, and providing research-based information to legislators and policy makers.

Today the MBL employs more than 270 scientists and support staff year-round working in the biological and environmental sciences. Research primarily focuses on ecosystems processes and climate change; microbial ecology, genomics and molecular evolution; regenerative biology and tissue engineering; imaging and cell biology; and sensory biology and behaviour.

The staff is joined each year by more than 300 visiting scientists, summer staff, and research associates from hundreds of institutions world-wide. Like generations of scientists before them, many consider the MBL their intellectual home, and return year after year to take advantage of the MBL’s unique collaborative environment.

In addition, more than 1,200 students and faculty from more than 500 institutions and 45 countries participate each year in the MBL’s 25 advanced laboratory-based researchtraining programmes offered in fields such as cellular physiology, embryology, neurobiology, molecular evolution and microbiology. In 2003 the MBL expanded its educational opportunities by partnering with nearby Brown University to establish a graduate programme in biological and environmental sciences

In spite of its notable history and extraordinary contributions to 20th century biology, the MBL has never been financially robust. Fiercely independent and governed for much of its history by scientists for scientists, fundraising was seldom a high priority. Today, with an annual budget of $41M and an endowment hovering around $70M, the MBL is severely under-capitalized.

Despite its recent successful $125M fundraising campaign—only the second major effort in the history of the institution—the MBL still found itself in a precarious financial situation. The economic downturn and challenging funding climate that affected all independent research institutions has not spared the MBL. In late 2012 the MBL’s Board of Trustees, with the leadership of Board Chair John W. (Jack) Rowe and new President and Director Joan V. Ruderman, began to explore strengthening the institution’s position through a university partnership. On 1 July 2013, the MBL became an affiliate of one of the leading research universities in the world: the University of Chicago. It seemed an interesting choice to some, who wondered why the MBL had not selected a more local partner. But the University of Chicago’s outstanding international reputation as a research institution, its experience with its other distinguished affiliates Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab, and, most importantly, its shared values and early history with the MBL made for an ideal partner.

The MBL retains its status as a separate research institution, as well as its independent Board of Trustees. The University is working with the MBL to expand access to federal and foundation grants, enhance philanthropy and build new educational programmes. The MBL also expects to benefit substantially from several kinds of savings and synergies that flow from being an affiliate of the University. Both operational and scientific strategic planning activities are now underway. Early plans are already taking shape to take advantage of MBL’s facilities during the academic year by developing a variety of training programmes that will benefit students at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. Another plus is the creation of the Frank R. Lillie Research Innovation Awards, named in honour of the MBL’s second Director and Chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Zoology. These awards will provide funding for scientists to develop novel, collaborative projects based at the MBL.

Students on the graduate programme in biological and environmental science. Image: Tom Kleindinst.

‘National and international collaborations are increasingly essential in biological research as we pursue fundamental problems that require many perspectives and specialties’, said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer upon the announcement of the affiliation. ‘I am delighted that the University of Chicago is partnering with the MBL to develop new possibilities for discovery and for training the next generation of science leaders. The MBL has an extraordinarily valuable role as a source of innovation and creative collaboration in modern biology’.

‘Our new partnership with the University of Chicago allows us to build on the MBL’s extraordinary strengths in biological, biomedical and environmental sciences, as well as develop new and exciting ventures going forward’, said MBL’s President and Director Joan V. Ruderman.

Pamela Clapp Hinkle (phinkle@ is the MBL’s Director of Development & External Relations.


Pamela Clapp Hinkle