I recently spent a week in Lithuania visiting biophysical laboratories and giving a couple of seminars. My host was Daumantas Matulis of the Institute of Biotechnology at Vilnius University, where they have an EU grant that includes funds for bringing in visiting scientists from other countries (thank you EU!). Although my sampling of the science in Lithuania is quite limited – the labs that I visited exhibited some interesting similarities. Physically, the labs at the Institute of Biotechnology in Vilnius and in the Institute of Cardiology in Kaunas consist of large collections of small rooms. Each room is the home of maybe 2 grad students or postdocs and the equipment they use the most for their work. Down the hall, and sometimes way down the hall, or even down the hall and up the stairs, will be the next room in the extended laboratory. In fact, to walk around and merely look through the doorway of each of the rooms in Daumantas’ laboratory would require about 10 minutes of walking (individual investigator laboratories in the Institute of Biotechnology are called “Departments” – this is presumably because relatively independent scientists can be working (and getting their own grants) within the laboratories of faculty such as Daumantas). The total square footage of a faculty member’s lab, however, is not that different from a medium-large American lab – maybe 1200-1500 square feet. I don’t know if all Lithuanian labs consist of collections of small rooms, but these did. And somewhat differently from the common practice in the US, all lab doors are kept closed. The level of science going on in these rooms, however, is indistinguishable from the science going on in the halls of any research university in the US. The photos below show the outside of the Institute building and the inside of one of Daumantas’ lab rooms.
Daumantas has a relatively large lab group slotted into his multiple little rooms where they study a variety of biophysical questions centered on drug binding and protein stability. Daumantas uses changes in protein stability to assess drug binding, and is designing new chemical entities to bind to a variety of well known drug targets – but the lab is not just a drug screening operation, in fact the bulk of the lab publications are concerned with fundamental biophysics and biological thermodynamics.
Saulius Grazulis is also at the Institute for Biotechnology and is a resident crystallographer in the laboratory of Virginijus Siksnys. Saulius is one of those semi-autonomous scientists (mentioned above) within a faculty lab (the Institute labs also have more “normal” postdoc positions within each lab, but there are a large number of these semi-autonomous positions that are more similar to so-called Research Professor or Research Associate positions in the US). Saulius is an extremely energetic and curious guy who carries two different cell phones and rarely utters a sentence that does not contain a physical chemical concept. (Okay, he really does talk about normal things too – but he loves to talk shop and we probably talked pure biophysics for about 92% of the time I spent talking to him over three days.)
After giving a Thursday seminar in Vilnius, Daumantas and several of his lab members drove me to Kaunas (about 100 kilometers from Vilnius) for another seminar and for a meeting that was part of an effort that Daumantas is mounting to coalesce several of the smaller biophysical clubs and local societies in Lithuania into one big Lithuanian Biophysical Society. This meeting in Kaunas was supported by the US Biophysical Society, as part of its new Biophysical Society mini-grant program (thank you Biophysical Society!). About 40 different Lithuanian biophysicists from many different specialization areas met in a sort of futuristic round conference room that looked like a mini-version of the UN Security Council meeting room, with a table in the middle for refreshments. Most of the proceedings were conducted in Lithuanian, but Saulius (the crystallographer mentioned above) kept me somewhat informed of what was going on. It seems that there are already many small biophysical clubs and consortiums in Lithuania (about 5-6 in all, some quite well established – which is rather impressive for a country that has a population roughly that of the state of Minnesota, and which has only been free from Soviet rule for under two decades). Coalescing these many different mini-societies into a more comprehensive national one will take a few more meetings and a few more discussions of logistics, but Saulius indicated that this meeting appeared to be a good start to that effort.
While in Kaunas, we also visited the laboratory of V.Arvydas Skeberkis in the Institute of Cardiology there in the Lithuanian Univ. of Health Sciences. Arvydas gave us a 40 minute long tour of the many small rooms in his lab, where he is doing things like transplanting stem cells into damaged heart tissue (in rabbits) and then measuring current, contraction, and gap junction behavior using fluorescent methods and patch clamp techniques. The fluorescence techniques he uses are really interesting: where he uses fluorescent dyes that react to changes in intracellular pH or electric potential. He also studies cellular nanotubes – not the tubular equivalent of a nanoparticle, but actual cellular membrane projections that some cells send out from their surface in order to make contact with other nearby (but physically separate) cells. His lab wants to know how the cell that originates the nanotube knows which direction to grow it in (it always grows in a strait line toward a nearby cell), and what the cells send through the nanotubes once contact is made.
All in all, at least from the few samples that I saw, biophysics in Lithuania is clearly a thriving and valued component of the biological research going on there.