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Long tradition

Experience and a reputation built up over many years constitute the foundation of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Medicine.

In 1929 a young and brilliant medical student, Jean Brachet, ended up "doing molecular biology without knowing it", to use Molière's words. While working in Professor Dalcq's laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), he became interested in some peculiar molecules. First evidenced in the thymus and therefore called "thymonucleic acids", these molecules were viewed at the time as reserves of sugar without any special significance. For the first time and using Feulgen's colorimetric method, Jean Brachet showed that thymonucleic acid is also present in the ovocytes and eggs of Xenopus laevis. Most importantly, he discovered that thymonucleic acid is a component of chromosomes and that it is synthesised during cell division post-fertilisation. Thymonucleic acid is actually DNA.

Shortly afterward, Jean Brachet made another major discovery, this time concerning an acid called "zymonucleic acid", assumed to be an exotic compound of yeasts and certain plant cells. He showed, on the contrary, that zymonucleic acid is present in the nucleus, nucleolus, and cytoplasm of all cells. He established that cells engaged actively in protein synthesis are rich in this acid. What's more, zymonucleic acid appeared to be particularly abundant in the ergastoplasm, where protein synthesis was thought to occur. Zymonucleic acid is in fact RNA.

These discoveries laid the foundation of molecular biology. The year was 1940. A few years later, Jean Brachet met Raymond Jeener. They worked together in a little laboratory at the "Rouge Cloître" in Auderghem.

At the end of the war, other eminent scientists joined this initial core of enthusiasts: Hubert Chantrenne and Jean-Marie Wiame, then Maurice Errera and René Thomas. Thus was formed the "Group of the Rouge Cloître".

There is a sharp contrast between the surroundings in which these scientists conducted their research, their poor working conditions, and the fame they were to acquire. Brachet, notably, was to become a member of the prestigious American Academy of Sciences. As the group's renown grew, more and more young researchers turned towards the promising science of molecular biology. By the early 1960's, the "Rouge Cloître" laboratory had become decidedly much too small!

The ULB then decided to build laboratories in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, with the help of funds from Euratom. This first "migration" enabled the teams to thrive in ultramodern settings. The move to Rhode-Saint-Genèse gave the group a new impetus: in the space of a few years, the number of scientists working there increased from a few dozen to over a hundred. The centre's international renown kept growing. New orientations emerged: immunology, mammalian embryology, virology, the genetics of prokaryotes and eukaryotes, the study of protein structures, applied genetics...

This diversity and the growth of the various groups led to the creation of the Department of Molecular Biology, officially recognised as such by the University in 1968.

As the Department continued to flourish, it was forced to send off "swarms" to other sites, until finally its tentacles reached from Rhode-Saint-Genèse to both campuses in Ixelles ("Solbosch" and "Plaine"), the CERIA (Anderlecht), the Institut Pasteur du Brabant, and even Nivelles, where the first Laboratory of Applied Genetics was created.

In parallel, a group focusing on basic medically oriented research was taking shape within the ULB's Faculty of Medicine. The impetus for this initiative was given in 1963, by A. Ermans and J. Dumont. Soon they were joined by many talented scientists, such as Gilbert Vassart. Initially called the Laboratory of Nuclear Medicine, this group became in 1972 the "Institute of Interdisciplinary Research in Human and Nuclear Biology" (IRIBHN) which Dr J. Dumont developed since then. Today, this laboratory is called Institute of Interdisciplinary Research in Human and Molecular Biology, IRIBHM.

The Institute of Molecular Biology and Medicine became operational in 1999 : it has brought together over 250 scientists from the Faculties of Science and Medicine.