The history of the department


by Niels Ole Kjeldgaard, the founder of the department

written in 1993 in connection with the department's 25th anniversary

The Molecular Biology Department was established during an especially favourable time for Danish research.  Throughout Denmark it was recognized that research and education were central issues for the country’s economic and cultural future, and that the majority of the population should have the opportunity to take an education to the highest possible level.  During the 1950s it was decided to expand the existing universities and departments of higher learning as well as to found new universities.

An auspicious start
The University of Aarhus was part of this picture, and during 1960 it was decided that its biology teaching should be broadened to include subjects that were previously taught only at the University of Copenhagen.  At the beginning of the 1960s, professorships in Zoology. Botany and Genetics were established so that teaching to Bachelor and Master levels in the Biological Sciences could begin. At this time a typical department’s personnel consisted of one Professor, one Head of Department and two to three Associate Professors. Thus, the faculty’s plan in 1966 was that the biology department as a whole should have 13 Professors, 15 Heads of Department and 39 Associate Professors.  Naturally there were also major building plans.
In the autumn of 1965 the Faculty of Science set up a committee to study the requirements for expansion of the Biology teaching at the University of Aarhus.  In addition to the Professor of Botany from Aarhus University Dr. Kai Larsen, the committee included four Professors from the University of Copenhagen: Dr. C. Barker Joergensen ( Zoophysiology), Dr. Morten Lange (Botany), Dr. Ole Maaloe (Microbiology) and Dr. K. G. Wingstrand (Zoology).  The committee unanimously supported the expansion plan and it was suggested that Professor-ships and Departments be set up in the fields of Genetics, Plant Physiology, Zoophysiology and Molecular Biology.  It was a time when the Ministry could meet the financial demands so in 1966 a Professor of Genetics was appointed, followed in June 1967 with the appointments of Professors of Plant Physiology and Molecular Biology.
Biology teaching began with selected students continuing to follow courses in Copenhagen.  It was very important for securing a good teaching base in Aarhus that the Faculty recognized that it could be a catastrophic start if the new subjects were immediately overwhelmed by high student numbers.  Therefore, an agreement was made that students, even after the new departments were set up, could still, after selection, continue to study in Copenhagen until satisfactory buildings could accommodate them in Aarhus.  This decision was an important basis for the successful expansion of our Department in that attention was paid to the development of the subject matter rather than the pressure of teaching when it came to appointing Department staff.

The first steps
The middle of the 1960s saw huge University building projects.  The Mathematics Department was about to be completed and from October 1968 it was able to provide space for the Molecular Biology Department that was founded by the University Senate on the 5th of June 1968.  The Department was housed in the H-wing at one end of the attic, while Micropalæontology was housed at the other end.  During 1967 the Geneticists had likewise found housing with the Mathematicians while the Department for Plant Physiology came under the wing of the Botanists in the offshoot of the Natural History Museum.

and teaching facilities were completed in 1967.  They foresaw a chain of buildings in the eastern part of what then was a military parade ground and garages.  The financing for the first link in this chain was in order, the plan for the 3200 square meters Biology 1 building was finalized and the invitation to submit tenders took place in December 1967.

It was originally planned that this building should house Plant Physiology, Genetics and Molecular Biology.  In the meantime the Geneticists´ primary interests had moved towards population genetics and they wished to have their own building attached to Mathematics.

The Faculty had earmarked a Professorship for Biochemistry, and in May 1969, Kjeld Marcker was appointed to this position.  It was obvious that a Biochemistry Department should be housed in the Biology I building which was completed in the summer of 1970.  Kjeld Marcker and I agreed that there was no advantage in having two Departments and that we should join forces in a Department for Molecular Biology.  In June 1970, Staffan Magnusson came to be Head of Division for Protein Chemistry.

It was still a time for optimism, even though a student revolution had shaken both the world and the University, resulting in a new kind of governing body.  A newly drawn up plan for the next building in the Biology complex was completed in the summer of 1970 and the biology expansion prognosis for 1975 called for a scientific staff of 17 Professorships, 17 Departmental Heads, 60 Associate Professors, 8 Guest Professors and 70 Post Graduates as well as buildings amounting to 31,000 square meters and an annual uptake of 150 students.

Scientific Activities
Already during the first couple of years, research at the Department was faring well.  It was concentrated on three main fields: Regulation of RNA synthesis in bacteria; control mechanisms for protein synthesis in eukaryotic cells; the amino acid sequence of prothrombin.  The money for buying apparatus was included in the money given for the building, while the scientific positions that were earmarked for the Department allowed us not only to appoint Danish researchers but also to invite foreign guests.  In the summer of 1970, Professor Eugene Goldwasser from the University of Chicago was invited to hold a series of lectures on cell differentiation, while in 1971 Professor Masayasu Nomura from the University of Wisconsin came to the Department as Guest Professor.  At the same time our international contacts were strengthened when we organized the first Linderstroem-Lang conference on “Informational Structures” in August 1971 as well as two EMBO courses and symposia on “Mammalian Protein Synthesis” in June 1972 and 1973.

Problems build up
The boundless optimism for expansion that had marked the Department’s inauguration could not continue.  At the beginning of the 1970s grants for staff positions and buildings were no longer plentiful.   

Biology II had been planned and the project went ahead more or less according to plan but the financial situation regarding further buildings in the biology complex was discouraging.

In connection with the general building fever, the University’s building programme included a new addition to the Chemistry Department on the allotments on the other side of Langelandsgade. The Ministry of Education had acquired this land in 1968 and the Building Inspector for the locality had a drawn-up plan for Chemistry II already in the summer of 1971.  In the spring of 1972, the Faculty saw the possibility of creating the necessary space for Biology by moving the Department for Molecular Biology to Chemistry II.  This building should house teaching facilities as well as a the Group of Biostructural Chemistry, which was to be established at the Chemistry Department.

The Department’s acceptance of the Faculty´s plan raised a storm of unforeseen problems.  The other Biology Institutes protested strongly against moving Molecular Biology from the planned complex.  Even the Department for Genetics was against this plan. The good relations that existed between the Rector and some Biologists meant that on several occasions the Rector would override the Faculty’s decisions.  The democratic conflict between the Faculty’s majority and individual Biologists resulted in the Rector cancelling the planned building of Chemistry II and sacrificing the relatively huge investment in the project.  This created a very tense atmosphere that also caused a reduction in the amount of space allotted to Molecular Biology in Biology II.

Under the heated conflict, the architect C.F. Moeller submitted a very optimistic time plan of under two years for the completion of the Biology III building, though there was still a lack of funds and no teaching facilities for 2nd-part students of Biology.  Therefore, in 1973, Copenhagen University confirmed that Aarhus students could continue in Copenhagen until 1975.  Over the entrance to Biology III, which houses the teaching localities, is written “Built in the years 1977-1979”!

The move to Biology II took place in the spring of 1974.  The Department had its first graduate in 1973 and its first PhD was given in 1974, and gradually all studies could be taken in Aarhus.  From about 1983, the Department’s graduate production reached a relatively constant level.

Recent times
Economic problems put a brake on the planned further expansion of Biology though we still had time to dream.  Biology IV, that also appeared in the overall building plans and had already had its own building committee, is now a twenty-year old dream that remains unfulfilled.

It was first when the Science Park was built that in 1991 with a contribution from the Bioregulatory Research Centre that it became possible to ease the rapidly accumulating space problems in Biology I and II.  Kjeld Marcker’s group was able to secure satisfactory space by moving to Gustav Wieds Vej.  Later, in 1992, one of the protein groups under the leadership of Torben Ellebæk Petersen, also moved, supported by the food technology programme FØTEK.  These moves have naturally served to ease the space problem for the Department but at the same time they have resulted in thinning out of the research potential in the original Department and a change in the research environment.

Therefore, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Department it must be a big wish that the old plans for the construction of a new research and teaching building will soon be fulfilled.

Scientific staff
Within the faculties that were created after 1972 there was a wish to set up larger Department administrative units.  This led to the Department of Plant Physiology amalgamating with the Department for Molecular Biology in the spring of 1976.  Professor Poul Larsen died in the summer of 1976 and in keeping with the desire to restrict spending, this professorship was lost and has never been replaced.  In 1983, a group from the then Department for Genetics and Ecology moved across to the Department for Molecular Biology.  Even though, on paper, staff numbers were growing and the Department gained new research fields, there was no dramatic change for Molecular Biology.

A recruiting plan for research has over the years brought the Department new staff positions at a slow pace.  On the other hand, the Department suffered a severe loss on the death of Staffan Magnusson in 1990, and filling this vacancy is proving a long drawn out affair.  The optimistic goal for the expansion of Biology, from 1975, is still along way from fulfilment.

Although until now I have named only the scientific staff, it does not mean that the allocation of technical and administrative personnel was more generous.  This has followed the same pattern with the desired number far from the reality.

The Department’s research and research funding
Despite limited space and despite much needed extra positions, the Department’s research has fully lived up to expectations and has attained much world recognition.  For example, it is worth mentioning that in 1973 the NOVO prize was given to Kjeld Marcker and in 1984 to Staffan Magnusson.

While the Department was being established, it was taken for granted that the financing of the University’s departments would also cover the cost of research.  However, during the recession, the funding from the University was unable to keep up with demand and it became more and more necessary to look for external funding.  In the beginning of the 1970s the funding system was gradually changed to what was called a two-stringed system consisting of University and Research Council.  While it has become more expensive to carry out research, the continuing financial depletion of the Universities and the increased demand from the Research Council has meant that the two-stringed system has gradually become multi-stringed – consisting of project grants as well as private and international funding.  Funding requirements have naturally meant that researchers must take into consideration the research topics that are currently popular and this has a tendency towards uniformity. The special project grants have become necessary for the continued existence of the Department’s research. The Biotechnology Programme of 1987-1990 supported many of the Department’s groups after the establishment of the Bioregulatory Research Centre just as the Biotechnology Centre for Plants had.  In agreement with the central administration’s implicit belief that change also improves the possibilities for good scientific collaboration, the earlier Centres, after a 5-year period, were replaced by the Centre for Human Gene Research, the Centre for Biomembrane Research, and the Centre for Plant Biotechnology,

Special programmes for MD Foods and FØTEK have given important general contributions to the funding of the Department’s research.  Similarly, private funds, especially The Cancer Society and The Carlsberg Fund have given important contributions in the form of research funding and stipends.  Finally, international research must not be forgotten.  Originally it was The National Institutes of Health that provided important support for protein chemistry research. Later, several of the Institute´s research groups have taken part in a number of EU-research programmes.

25 years of Molecular Biology
In 1972, the first recombinant DNA molecules were constructed at Stanford University in California, and in 1973 a foreign DNA fragment was inserted in a plasmid and then transferred to Eschericia coli bacteria.  

These trials and the rapid technological development in Molecular Biology that has occurred over the past 20 years have had profound consequences for the Department of Molecular Biology, not only that laboratory personnel must now wear yellow lab coats to make believe that the work is dangerous.

Some traditional researchers believe that Molecular Biology is a thing of the past, but the development that started in the late 1970s has clearly shown the importance of having detailed knowledge of the cell’s molecular mechanisms.

The Department for Molecular Biology has at all times been in the forefront of progress here in Denmark.  The Department’s scientific production and the large number of graduates, post-graduates and PhDs that have passed through have, to a high degree, influenced the development of Molecular Biology in Denmark, and have without doubt, reached the goal that was set 25
years ago.


by Erik Østergaard Jensen, Head of Department

written in 2008 in connectin with the department's 40th anniversary

The past 15 years of the Department of Molecular Biology (MBI):
A department on the move

MBI at different locations
The merger between the Biostructural Chemistry Group and the MBI in 1996 is one of the most important events in the recent history of the Department. Brian F.C. Clark founded the Biostructural Chemistry group in 1974, and his group’s research has over the years been closely related to the activities at the MBI with a strong focus on the structural aspects of macromolecules. Three new wings were added to the Science Park in 1996 hosting the Biostructural Chemistry Group and two additional groups from the the MBI University Campus. Thus since 1996, the MBI has been divided physically into two equally sized units, the University Campus unit with focus on molecular biology and the Science Park unit with focus on proteins and plants. The structural biological research has now become an important and integrated part of many of the ongoing research projects at the MBI and is an example of a successful merger.
Ever since the housing of the MBI’s research groups in different locations, it has been our dream to get one house for all MBI’s activities including the related study programmes. However, the successful expansion of the activities at the MBI has made the fulfilment of this dream almost impossible since the space available either at the Science Park or at Campus is not sufficient to house the more than 400 staff and students working at the MBI. To be realistic, the move of the University Hospital to Skejby in 10 years will be the only potential possibility to get one address in the foreseeable future.  However, during the recent years the MBI has acquired some more space: a whole floor from Geology at Campus, a building from the Cancer Society at the Science Park and a whole floor at the Science Park. However, a very recent investigation of the space distribution at the Faculty of Science clearly demonstrated an urgent need for more space at the MBI, a conclusion the research groups at the MBI have known for years. A take-over of the remaining part of the Science Park by the Faculty of Science will be the most obvious immediate solution to solve part of this problem.

Several new study programmes
The Department has contributed to the education of molecular biology students from the very beginning; however until recently the students were enrolled either as biology or chemistry students.  In 2002 the Department became the master of its own house by the introduction of a new bachelor programme in molecular biology with several different flavours, the human biology being the most popular. A total of 37 students were enrolled in the molecular biology study programme in 2003.

A recent initiative taken by the Faculty of Science, the Engineering College of Aarhus and the County of Aarhus resulted in the establishment of the Aarhus Graduate School of Engineering. The MBI decided to join the initiative and agreed to offer a technical bachelor in Biotechnology in 2006 and a Master of Science in Engineering in process technology to be launched in 2009. A group of teachers from the MBI took on the responsibility to develop the new study programme, and in collaboration with the Engineering College of Aarhus, we could welcome 22 engineering students in 2006.

In 2005, the University announced Molecular Medicine to be a focus area. A major part of the research at the MBI is within the scope of molecular medicine. The MBI therefore decided to be an important player in this initiative, and in collaboration with the Faculty of Health Sciences, we established a bachelor and a master study programme in Molecular Medicine. Several of our established courses were remodelled to provide the most relevant background for the new study programme, and new courses were established. The study programme was offered for the first time in 2007, and we got many more applications than the set limit of 60 students.

Very recently the MBI has contributed significantly to the establishment of an MSc study programme in Molecular Nutrition and Food Technology, a study programme offered by the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.

The recent years have been very busy setting up new study programmes and courses with several different external partners – in 2007 we accepted 165 students in our three study programmes. Thus within a very short period of time, the MBI has increased the production of student study years from 180 in 2000 to 364 in 2007, the highest number at the Faculty of Science! And we have only seen the tip of the iceberg due to the large number of new study programmes.  The big challenge for the future is to keep the high standards with an increasing number of students and to optimize all the new study programmes.

The number of PhD students has increased from 50 in 2000 to more than 80 in 2008. More attention has been paid to the education of PhD students over the recent years. Every student is now associated with a small committee of external and internal advisors that regularly gives feed-back on their project. An honours’ programme has been initiated to recruit highly qualified bachelor students who can subsequently be enrolled as Phd students.

Strong research groups at the MBI
The tenured scientific staff has increased from 28 to 34 over the past 13 years (17 new appointments and 11 retirements). The appointed associate and full professors have primarily consolidated and expanded the established research fields. However, one exception is the recruitment of a professor in biotechnology to support the new engineering study programme. None of the four founders of molecular biology and structural chemistry are employed at the Department any longer. Staffan Magnusson died in 1990, Niels Ole Kjeldgaard retired in 1994 and died in 2006, Kjeld Marcker retired in 2002 and Brian F.C. Clark retired in 2007, but is still associated with the Department. Another very important person for the Department, Jens Nyborg, died in 2005. We all owe them a lot for what they started.

The Department is presently divided into the following research fields: DNA Processing, RNA & Viruses, Cellular Signalling & Development, Plant Molecular Biology, Structural Biology, Protein Function, Protein Interactions, and Molecular Nutrition. However, numerous collaborative projects exist between these research fields. The profiling of the Department towards the university has been difficult, illustrated by the fact that until 2003, no professors had been appointed at the MBI except for the founders. However, this has changed over the past five years where seven professors have been appointed. The national awareness of the research at the MBI has also increased dramatically over the past few years. The research at the MBI has always been of high standards, but for a period some 5-10 years ago, we had strong competition from other universities in Denmark. The present state of our high research quality is well illustrated by the fact that the MBI is heading three Centres of Excellence by the Danish National Research Foundation and is major partners in two other Centres of Excellence out of a total of 38 national centres.

The establishment of the iNANO Centre at the Faculty of Science in 2002 has resulted in new - more technology-driven - research directions at the MBI. The MBI has also fostered several spin-off companies during the past 15 years like Borean Pharma, Cobento and Plantic; however the survival rate is low due to difficulties in attracting venture capital, and thus only Cobento exists today. The MBI is also one of the more active Departments when it comes to invention disclosures, last year being involved in 1/5 of all disclosures at the University

External funding is the basis for all research at the MBI, and for the past 15 years external funding has increased from 25 M DKK to 73 M DKK. Thus, as a whole the Department is doing excellently, but the figures also hide large differences between the individual research groups. The national and international competition have become much more tough, and even groups with a solid publication record can have problems in attracting money for their research and education of Master and PhD students. This might have the consequence that some research programmes must be terminated and new have to be developed in areas with better funding. On a small scale this is probably healthy, but we also face the risk that some - less trendy projects - will die even if they scientifically are potentially very interesting.

On the administrative side we have been challenged by a new accounting system, a database to register publications and activities, and latest an electronic calendar. However, after some years of running-in, the benefits are now becoming evident, and no doubt professional computer systems are required to manage the increasing number of students, staff and funding. 

In 2003 the Danish Parliament passed a new law concerning the management of the universities. As a consequence, the Head of Department was appointed by the Dean in 2004 and not as previously elected by the scientific staff. Another consequence was a replacement of the Departmental board with a Departmental Council advising the Head of Department.

The past 15 years can best described as the period where molecular biology has become an integrated part of many different disciplines rather than being a specialized topic. At the Department we have experienced a successful generation shift, taking the best of - but not limited by - the traditions at the MBI.  There is a pronouced collaborative spirit at our Department and this augers well for our future when facing the increasing international and national competition