Bio21 Director’s Message - 12 reasons to be optimistic about 2021 at Bio21 - 5 February 2021

The year 2020 brought bushfires, that threatened and destroyed communities and ecosystems; and two waves of coronavirus infection, that locked down our city and state for three months, isolating us from our extended families and social networks.  Our research was put on ice and our lectures moved online. Our confidence was dented and our sense of optimism for the future maybe dampened. What will 2021 bring? 

And yet, we have survived this far and can be proud of our collective efforts and sacrifice as individuals, organisations, state and country to suppress coronavirus in Australia. According to the analysis conducted by the Lowy Institute, Australia ranked 8th in the world for our response to the pandemic. In practical terms, many lives were saved, and people spared disability and distress and the health system was prevented from being overwhelmed with cases. 

Our hard-won ‘donut days’ have meant many of us could reconnect with family and friends over the Christmas and New Year break; go to the cinema, the library and the local pool, or into the regions for a holiday. It means that many more of us can now return to our work in the lab and reconnect with colleagues at the Institute, albeit adhering to COVID-Safe rules that are still in place. 

SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread beyond our borders, which remain closed to most international visitors, including students, with a disastrous effect on Australian universities and the Australian higher education sector, including research.
Despite all the challenges and changes brought by budget cuts there is a lot of positive news to look forward to in Bio21 this year. 

Here are ‘12 reasons to be optimistic about 2021 at Bio21’:

Facilities, platforms and instruments...

1.    Opening of the Ruth Bishop building.
The Ruth Bishop building was completed in late 2020. The building façade retains elements of the former Veterinary Research Institute, originally built in 1909. Behind it emerges a modern, purpose-built Ian Holmes Imaging Centre that now houses our electron microscopes, a wonderful resource for the University. It’s spectacular and beautiful and I encourage you to take a walk around the building. We plan to give tours inside the building when it is COVID-safe to do so.

2.    Commissioning our new Titan Krios and Aquilos.
The new Titan Krios cryo-EM microscope and Aquilos cryo-FIB arrived at Bio21 at the end of the last year. Eric Hanssen and his team have been busy carefully unpacking the large and heavy boxes with their precious cargo and setting up the instruments that will become available for use in the course of this year.  

3.    Establishing cryo-tomography at Bio21.
Also, within this new facility, Eric Hanssen and his team will be establishing a cryo-tomography pipeline at Bio21. We are fortunate to have a world expert in this technology at Bio21 with new group leader Debnath Ghosal, supported by experts in Eric’s team.

4.    Establishing the new ARC ITTC Centre for Cryo-EM of membrane proteins and drug discovery.
On the 14th July 2020, funding came through for an ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre (ITCC) for Cryo-Electron Microscopy of Membrane Proteins for Drug Discovery. MIPS will be the headquarters of the ARC Training Centre and Bio21, University of Melbourne is one of the key collaborators, with the Ruth Bishop Building and Ian Holmes Imaging Centre to house many of the CryoEM microscopes that will be accessed by the ITTC centre. Isabelle Rouiller (Deputy Director of the ITTC and UoM node leader), Mike Griffin and the Parker groups will be conducting a number of major training projects as part of the ITTC centre.

5.    Opening of the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) Facility for Innovative Cancer Drug Discovery.
The $2M ACRF grant has helped establish a drug discovery pipeline at Bio21 which provides a virtual link between our platforms.

6.    Establishing a crystallisation facility in Melbourne Protein Characterisation (MPC).
This facility will build upon our in-house capability in crystallography and increase our productivity at the Australian Synchrotron.

7.    The rescue of our Melbourne Magnetic Resonance platform with the help of ACRF, Bio21 and ARC LIEF. 
Our flagship 800 MHz NMR spectrometer will be upgraded, a 19F 500 MHz NMR spectrometer funded by ACRF funds will arrive in the next couple of months following by a number of other spectrometers later in the year.

8.    Over $15M of new equipment for four of our platforms.
These include our new electron microscope and cryoFIB, NMR spectrometers, crystallisation robots and a range of mass spectrometers including a hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass spectrometer.

9.    Bio21 will welcome research groups from the former Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, (now part of the newly merged Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology in the School of Biomedical Sciences) as well as new groups from Chemistry and Biosciences in the Faculty of Science to Bio21.
Please welcome the groups led by: Ivanhoe Leung (Chemistry) and Moira O’Bryan (Biosciences). We welcome them into our community and are excited at the ideas and knowledge they bring with them.

10.    Plans to expand industry presence at Bio21.
In the course of 2021, we expect to be welcoming new industry groups and the growth of existing industry tenants, as we plan to expand our industry presence at the Institute. 

New Bio21 community spaces…
11.    Developing an outside social space for Bio21 staff and students.

I am very pleased that as part of the Ruth Bishop development, we were able to include an outdoor social space. There will be landscaped garden beds, outdoor benches and a BBQ, that will become bookable for use and I’m sure will be very popular. This outdoor space may also lend itself to larger outdoor gatherings, which are also safer in this time of COVID.
12.    New bike shed.
Lastly, we will have a new bike shed when the old gatehouse on Park Drive gets redeveloped. For those who commute to work via bike, we will have another safe area to lock up their bicycle.

The Australian vaccine roll-outs in the next couple of months, will be the key to guiding us out of the pandemic. Our industry friends at CSL play a major part in this Australian effort and we are proud of them. And there are many other academic and industry scientists at Bio21 who have contributed in various ways to our understanding of the virus and searching for new treatments. 

As scientists, it is our optimism, our generosity in sharing data and engaging in collaborations; our grit and determination in the face of challenges and our curiosity and constant willingness to learn and revise our knowledge as we apply the scientific method, that has made this possible.  

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute