Thursday, 5th December 2019

Historical Overview

Historical overview: The Centre for Molecular Biology "Severo Ochoa" (CBMSO) is internationally recognized for its multidisciplinary research in different fields of Biology and Biomedicine. Since its foundation in 1975, under the scientific counselling of the Nobel prize winner Severo Ochoa, the CBMSO has performed a pivotal role in fostering state of the art research in Molecular Biology. Research at the CBMSO resulted in seminal contributions that have become basic concepts in textbooks. These include deciphering the genetic structure of the Drosophila bithorax complex, fundamental for understanding body segmentation, the characterization of the Drosophila achaete-scute complex, which explained how early neurogenesis occurs, and the identification of a novel mechanism of DNA replication using proteins as primer. At the same time, the CBMSO has formed generations of scientists who now lead the most relevant Spanish research Centres or have developed successful careers abroad. Strong from the start and far from being anchored in its past, the CBMSO has subsequently evolved to its current mission of performing research at the forefront of Molecular Biomedicine, faithful to its commitment of providing the best training for the future leaders of Spanish and international research.

Current organization: The CBMSO is now organised in 5 complementary scientific departments that cover different aspects of Molecular Biomedicine: Cell Biology and Immunology, Virology and Microbiology, Development and Regeneration, Molecular Neurobiology and Genome Dynamics and Function. This structure is reinforced with 11 Core Facilities, 7 Technical Services, a competent Administration Office and a Scientific Outreach/Press office. A Directive Board governs the Centre with the assistance of an Internal Scientific Committee (ISC). An external Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), composed of internationally renowned scientists, provides the Centre with strategic insights, external counselling and analysis of the research groups’ performance every 5 years.


A Brief History of the CBMSO

Jesús Avila          

In an individualistic country like ours one person is usually responsible for getting things going. In the case of biology in Spain, this was Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience. After his death and the Civil War, the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas (a biology research institute set up in1953 by the Spanish National Research Council, the CSIC) tried to continue his work; it was virtually the only non-university place in Spain to carry out biological research like that being done in other European countries.

Later, another great Spanish researcher, Severo Ochoa, who did groundbreaking work in his laboratory at New York University, where various Spanish researchers worked with him, took the initiative to establish another biology research center, adding the adjective “molecular” to distinguish the institution. Thus began what is now known as the Centro de Biología Molecular “Severo Ochoa”. Two colleagues helped Ochoa set up the center: Eladio Viñuela, who had worked with him in New York, and who set up the center’s structure and organization; and Federico Mayor Zaragoza, who raised the funds for the center’s construction.

The Center was organized as a joint center with groups from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM).  CSIC groups came from the Center for Biological Research and were led by Dr. Viñuela, Dr. Salas, Dr. Vázquez and Dr. García Bellido. They were joined by Dr. Mayor of the UAM. Faithful to Severo Ochoa’s vision, these groups achieved international repute for the new center. Subsequently the CBMSO was restructured as the union of the UAM’s Instituto de Biología Molecular and the CSIC’s Instituto de Biología Molecular “Eladio Viñuela” (named in recognition of Viñuela’s work). The Technical Department was added to support these institutes’ work of these.

Our center is the only one in modern Spain at which a Nobel Prize has worked and the only one where two members of the American Academy of Sciences work. It also has more EMBO members than any other Spanish institution, and several of its scientists have been awarded various national and international prizes.

For the proper functioning of the center, its founders showed a generosity in carrying out their work that facilitated cooperation unity in pursuit of a common good. They set certain standards, not always written, related to the dynamic nature of biological research. These standards established a rotating directorship of the center, and ensured that in addition to carrying out research per se, the CBMSO became a research training center with seminars, meetings, and other training activities that make it a good place to carry out postgraduate studies. In addition, the center would support the development of new technologies through its technical department. Eladio Viñuela and Javier Corral did crucial work to modernize the center’s technological capacities.

As part of the center’s dynamic new groups were created by disciples of Drs. Viñuela, Salas, Vázquez, García Bellido and Mayor. Other groups from outside joined the growing center of excellence. To relieve the pressure this growth put on the center’s facilities, the then Director General of Research, Emilio Muñoz, created a new center on the UAM’s Cantoblanco campus, the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología, to which several groups from the CBMSO went. The emergence of this new center was a very positive development for CBMSO, with which it had a healthy relationship of both competition and cooperation. Subsequently, other centers have welcomed new groups or researchers from the CBMSO. The current directors of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas, for example, worked at the CBMSO earlier in their careers. CBMSO researchers have also gone on to such political positions as minister, secretary of state, director general or president of the CSIC.

From 1975 through 2012, the CBMSO has gone from having two locations in the UAM’s Faculty of Sciences, to being dispersed over three locations, to a single building constructed for the purpose on the UAM’s Cantoblanco campus. Achieving this building took the work of various directors, some smarter, some harder-working, some more committed, some more organized, but all dedicating their time and work for the good of the center and all those who work here. Many of these directors also worked to improve and update the Technical Department that has somehow become increasingly decentralized over time. This department deserves special recognition of its effort, for while the center grew from the initial 4 lines to the current 73 lines of work (grouped in 5 departments), the Technical Department’s resources have not kept pace, yet the department has gone beyond the call of duty to maintain the level of service the CBMSO needs.

Now, with one location that houses us all, I think we should keep trying to achieve what Severo Ochoa intended for the center: to be a scientific Mecca, like Cambridge from Sulston to Bragg or American universities such as Harvard, Columbia, or Rockefeller, where there is a strong tradition, where new fields are opened up and where originality is prized. We have a way to go, but we are always trying to improve, even in times of crisis. We are confident that our current and future directors will keep working toward our goal. All the CBMSO’s members seek to improve the center and the work of its scientists, and this is our greatest wealth. That those who are coming along (emerging groups, youth groups, new entrants) achieve more than we who are now senior staff is the progress we aspire to.

For more detailed information on our scientific development, research contributions (publications, patents, training activities) and achievements, I refer the reader to what appears in this and previous reports since the center’s foundation. Suffice it to say here that I think Severo Ochoa would not be unhappy with how his initial idea is taking shape.



The CBMSO is governed by a board of directors made up of the following people:


Director of the CBMSO

Lourdes Ruiz Desviat

 Vice-Director of the CBMSO

Jaime Millán Martínez

 Director of the Instituto Universitario de Biología Molecular (UAM

Federico Mayor Menéndez

 Director of the Instituto de Biología Molecular "Eladio  Viñuela" (CSIC)

César de Haro Castella

Germán Lerma Rodrigo

Scientific Staff representatives

Lola Ledesma
Iván Ventoso

Support staff representatives

Fernando Núñez
Manuel Belda


  • The directing board receives advice from different committees constituted by research and technical staff members.

Directors of the scientific departments
External scientific advisory board


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