A visit to Madrid

A week ago, courtesy of my colleague Nicole Gorfinkiel, I visited the Centre of Molecular Biology (CBM) Severo Ochoa in Madrid. Many people will not have heard of this place but for those toiling with Drosophila it is here that, in the 1970s and early 80s, Antonio Garcia Bellido and his students taught the world how to do lineage analysis with mutants and thereby brought together genetics with cell biology to study the development of organs and tissues. Of course, today this type of approach is routine in all labs and in all organisms, but it originated in Madrid.

It was a good visit. A few years ago the Institute moved to a new building which has allowed it to expand its capacity and improve the services and infrastructure. There is  a variety of cell, molecular and developmental biology but I enjoyed seeing that Drosophila is, still, going strong there. Now the genetics has  a varnish of cell biology, but the legacy of Garcia Bellido is there and still providing insights into developmental problems. I had a chance to see people I had not seen in a number of years and I enjoyed hearing about the work of JF de Celis on the growth and patterning of the wing, Isabel Guerrero on the mechanisms of reception and distribution of Hedgehog signalling, Mar Ruiz Gomez on the muscles and the kidney of the fly and Fernando Diaz Benjumea on the role that Hox genes play in the specification of neuroblast lineages. It was also good to see that the developmental biology group has evolutionary biologists like Cristina Grande who is working on the role of signalling in the early stages of snail development. The CBM has grown since the early days and it contains the seeds for a good future if the political and economical circumstances in Spain allow it.

It is a bit worrying that the financial situation in Spain puts in jeopardy the efforts that have been made over the last ten years to provide a solid framework to a community which already was making significant contributions to the Biomedical Sciences, many of them abroad. The visible side of this effort are rightly prominent institutes like CNIO and CNIC in Madrid, CRG and IRB in Barcelona, CABD in Sevilla or Biogune in Bilbao. However Centers like the CBM, though less visible and with less resources, also do excellent work. The worry is that their relative international invisibility make them more vulnerable to the side effects of the present situation. It is important to emphasize that for a long while, Centers like the CBM have been, and still are, the sources of postdocs and PIs for many labs, in Spain and abroad. It would be a pity if, in the reforms that are coming, they were to draw the short straw. They depend more than the private and regionally subsidized institutes on government funding, and the rumbles of cuts and redundancies that are in the air do not help the atmosphere for the young. Centres like the CBM do provide excellent value for money and I would suggest that they should be supported.