Our industrial legacy – Biologisk Institut - Københavns Universitet

Collaboration > Our industrial legacy

Our industrial legacy

Below, a brief history of BIO is presented with focus on knowledge creation relevant for the development of Danish biotech industry.

Brief historic background of BIOs research

At the University of Copenhagen (established in 1479), basic biology research originates from the sciences of medicine, botany and chemistry. Initially, the two latter subjects were not considered as independent fields of research, but as subjects supporting the medical sciences. In 1850, an independent faculty for mathematics and natural sciences was established incl. departments dedicated to zoology and botany.

A broader representation of the biological sciences as we recognize them today, owes to the establishment of the plant, botany, bacteriology and zoophysiology laboratories around 1890. One of the world’s first biology laboratories dedicated to freshwater research was established in 1897 and from 1911 housed by the lake in the town of Hillerød. Marine biology originated from the zoology department in the 1930s and was established in the coastal town of Helsingør in the 1940s, obtaining permanent and independent status in 1958. Together with a number of new departments for plant physiology, genetics, microbiology and biological chemistry (established between 1949 and 1959) and a more recent series of mergers, these historic departments forms the backbone of the present day large and cross-disciplinary Department of Biology (BIO).

A cross-disciplinary and international mindset are tradition-based hallmarks of BIO. As an example, the young departments for plant physiology, genetics, microbiology and biological chemistry were brought together in the same building in 1959, with the explicit intention to share knowledge and infrastructure. This vision had been conceived already prior to 1940, inspired by the organization of the California Institute of Technology. However, plans were postponed by the second World War. After the war, Danish research recovered only slowly and funding was scarce. Thus, the new buildings, departments and instruments could not find sufficient funding from national public and private donations alone. However, due to strong international relations, a substantial donation was received from the Rockefeller foundation, as well as from the Marshall aid.


University of Copenhagen main building inaugurated 1836.

August Krogh Building

Copenhagen Biocenter from 2007 houses the larger part of BIO.

130 years of BIO heritage and industry impact

Agriculture and forestry
From around 1890, a number of distinguished Danish researchers have contributed to our understanding of plants and botany. Professor Peter Boysen-Jensen’s discovery of plant hormones in 1910, and the importance for plant growth regulation, are one of the most notable discoveries. A strong plant-focused research tradition has continued also in other departments at the present faculty of SCIENCE, University of Copenhagen, resulting in scientific discovery and founding a tradition of close collaboration with the Danish agriculture and forestry sectors.

Early industrial and medicinal bacteriology
Copenhagen has strong, historic traditions in microbiology, dating back to the late 19th Century when Hans Christian Gram invented the bacterial Gram stain (1882) and Emil C. Hansen cultured his yeast lines to purity (1883), thereby founding the modern brewery tradition at Carlsberg. By the way, both Gram and Hansen were students and assistants to the zoologist Japetus Steenstrup.

In 1878, Carl Julius Salomonsen had demonstrated that tuberculosis was an infectious disease during his international studies. Salomonsen thereafter brought medicinal bacteriology to Scandinavia and in 1883 he became the first Chair of Bacteriology world wide at the University of Copenhagen. Salomonsen also founded “Statens Serum Institut” from where Salomon’s student Thorvald Madsen and his staff eventually defeated human tuberculosis during World War II.

Diabetes, insulin and Novo Nordisk
No story concerning BIOs impact on the Danish industry is complete without the mentioning of how August Krogh’s entrepreneurial spirit lead to the production of insulin in Denmark from 1922 and the inception of the company Novo Nordisk. See more details in the section dedicated to Krogh below.

The Copenhagen School of Microbiology
The heritage from Ole Maaløe and the second half of the 20th century is another BIO highlight in terms of industrial impact. Maaløe founded Molecular Microbiology in Denmark in the 1950-60s as well as the internationally trend-setting Copenhagen School of Microbiology. This research environment had a major impact on the development of Danish Biotech.

Maaløe’s achievements are described in more detail below. We are also preparing a hitherto untold story about how BIO mediated Novo Nordisk’s early embracement of molecular biology and cloning for enzyme expression, to obtain an industrial technology-leap ahead of competitors.


1883: Carlsberg’s open access brewing yeast

Jacob Christian Jacobsen founded Carlsberg in 1847 and was a visionary, who from the beginning invested heavily in research and innovation. In 1879, Jacobsen hired Emil C. Hansen from the Zoology Department (present day BIO). Hansen had received a gold-medal for his assay on Danish fungi in 1876 and worked as university teacher. In 1883 and as director at Carlsberg, he became the first ever to isolate one single yeast cell enabling the establishment of a pure yeast strain for brewing (Saccharomyces carlsbergensis). Until then, yeast cultures contaminated with wild yeasts had caused major quality problems for the entire industry. Jacobsen distributed the yeast strain for free to competing beer producers – an impressing example of early open access idealism. Today, all yeasts used in lager beers are derived from this original yeast strain.


1922: Novo Nordisk and insulin production started at BIO

The famous Danish scientist and Nobel Laureate August Krogh is considered one of the main founders of the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, a present day global leader in diabetes treatment. Somehow, prof. Krogh received permission from the University of Toronto to manufacture and sell insulin in Scandinavia in 1922. Together with Dr. Hans Christian Hagedorn, Krogh conducted research and assembled a team that produced a series of innovations paving the way for high quality production and application of insulin products in treatment. Krogh conducted his physiology research at the Laboratory of Zoophysiology, which today is part of BIO. One of the departmental buildings is named after August Krogh.


1960s: The cradle of industrial biotech in Denmark

Ole Maaløe was professor from 1958-84 at the Dept. of Microbiology, today part of BIO. Maaløe conducted research in the field of bacterial physiology and growth control and was particularly dedicated to the development of quantitative methods enabling the deduction of cell level information. Among his foremost merits was the contribution to the understanding of ribozomes in protein synthesis and the founding of a highly international and leading research environment named ‘the Copenhagen School’. Already from before his employment as head of department at the university, Maaløe was internationally oriented and collaborated with distinguished scientists such as the Nobel laureates James D. Watson and Max Delbrück. Over the years, many other outstanding scientists collaborated or visited on summer sabbaticals.

The discipline of molecular biology was greatly influenced by the discovery of cellular regulatory mechanisms in bacteria and Maaløe was a true front-runner in the development of this discipline. Over the years, the work of Maaløe and colleagues not only led to basic science advances but also supported developments central for biotechnology applications such as application of molecular biology techniques and optimization of fermentation. Today, one of Europe’s biotech large clusters is based in the Copenhagen area (known as Medicon Valley), with part of its legacy owing back to the advances in molecular biology and competent workforce educated at Maaløe’s Dept. of Microbiology.