50th anniversary of the biomolecular structure lab

The Biomolecular Research Lab at Birkbeck College was opened on July 1, 1948 by Sir Lawrence Bragg. A meeting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event was held in November, 1998. Speakers, all associated with the College, reminisced about ‘old times’ and described their current research.

A. Mackay described Bernal’s work in Cambridge. J. Finney talked about his work on the structure of water, including the newly discovered phase (VII). R. Stroud discussed structures of the recognition particle responsible for targeting membrane and secreted proteins to the endoplasmic reticulum during their synthesis. The contrast between the primitive equipment used by Bernal’s group and the facilities available to modern structural biologists was emphasized by P. Lindley, director of the European Synchrotron Radiation Source (ESRF). K. Holmes, (Max Planck Inst. for Medical Research in Heidelberg) described complexes between the muscle proteins actin and myosin. A. Klug described designing a protein specifically to bind to a particular sequence of DNA bases, such as those which result from cancer-causing mutations. C. Chothia of the MRC Lab of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, and A. Sali of Rockefeller U., New York, addressed the challenge of predicting the structures of the protein products of all the genes in a microbial genome. L. Pearl described the mechanism of DNA repair. T. Blundell gave industrial and academic views of structural based drug discovery and design.

Bernal’s interests were not limited to science; he was also interested in the Arts and politics. Many eminent peace campaigners were entertained in his top floor flat above the lab, including Pablo Picasso who painted a mural on the wall.

Clare Sansom and Kate Crennell
From BCA Newsletter, March, 1999