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New Department of Biological Sciences, "Seika" to Start!

– Countdown for the consolidation of the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry and the Department of Biological Sciences –
  • Akihiko Nakano, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
Figure 1

Joint Retreat (February 2013, at Oiso)

On April 1, 2014, the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry and the Department of Biological Sciences in the Graduate School of Science, will consolidate with to form the new Department of Biological Sciences. Although it is an equal amalgamation of the two departments, the new department is given the most fitting name "Biological Sciences," the same name as the former Department of Biological Sciences. Since the two departments are homonymous in Japanese, they are often called "Seibutsu Bakegaku" (or "Seibutsu Chemistry") and "Seibutsu Science" to be distinguished. Since this clarification is no longer necessary, the new department will be just called "Seibutsu Kagaku" or simply "Seika."

The two departments have long histories. The predecessor of the present Department of Biological Sciences started in 1877 when the University of Tokyo was established. It was divided into the Department of Zoological Science and the Department of Plant Science in 1886, and the Department of Anthropology was added in 1939. The three separate departments and the new section of Evolutionary Biology were incorporated into the present Department of Biological Sciences in 1995, which was facilitated by the policy of reinforcing the Graduate School. The predecessor of the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry started in 1958, aiming at promoting life sciences at the molecular level. The section of Bioinformatics was added in 2007. In the undergraduate school (the Faculty of Science), the Department of Biological Sciences, and the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry and the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology are respectively attached to the two departments of the Graduate School of Science.

The present Department of Biological Sciences is historically descended from classic biology, which focused on species-inherent characteristics, as it formerly consisted of three separate departments specializing in zoology, botany and anthropology. The Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry was established to pursue biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics on the basis of molecules. However, recent breakthroughs in biological sciences have made it meaningless to have these separate departments. Molecular biology, which first emerged with bacteria studies, is now rapidly advancing, dealing with higher organisms. Not only model organisms such as yeast and Drosophila, but also a wide variety of organisms are now studied, because the progress in genome science has enabled the determination of the genomic sequence of any organism. Meanwhile, it goes without saying that knowledge on the molecular level is now essential in all disciplines including physiology and developmental biology. No solid conclusion would be made without genomic sequence information in phylogenetics and systematics. With the advent of DNA as a common language, there are no boundaries in biological sciences.

In these circumstances, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry promoted together the 21st Century COE Program and the Global COE Program, and annually held the joint retreat (see photo) where faculty and students can meet and talk to each other, adding momentum to the merger. The separate departments are unnecessary, since by merging we can expand the range of activities, allowing the students to be exposed to a greater variety of research fields. The first step in 2012 was to establish common entrance examinations for the Graduate School, and to adopt a system in which students could apply for three advisors within the two departments. Finally, we received approval from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and will start the new Department of Biological Sciences in April 2014.

Many senior faculty members wished to integrate the two departments to establish a framework for promoting new biological sciences, while respecting the cultures of both. At last, the long-cherished dream is coming true, thanks to the efforts of the members of the two departments, the dedicated assistance of Professor Hiroaki Aihara, Dean of School of Science, other faculty members, and the strong support of the office staff. The united Department of Biological Sciences in the School of Science will strive to live up to your expectations by taking the lead in research and education in biological and life sciences.

We will continue to make every effort to realize the promise of the merger to avoid complacency. In an effort to create interdisciplinary research, the establishment of the Division of Advanced Photon Life Sciences was authorized. Some faculty from the two departments will be appointed to the division, and a few faculty from the Department of Physics and the Department of Chemistry will also join the division while holding their current positions. The new division will promote leading-edge research in the life sciences by means of photon science and technology. The division will actively collaborate with the Advanced Leading Graduate Course in Photon Science (ALPS) and relevant projects. A part of the new department will be housed in the East Wing of the Faculty of Science Bldg. 1, located midway between Bldg. 2 and Bldg. 3 where remaining department members reside. The increased opportunities to interact with researchers in other departments in Bldg. 1 is expected to encourage further integration and cooperation in research.

Finally, the research base problem remains unsettled. The effect of the merger would be impaired if the two departments continue research activities in separate places, even though they are incorporated organizationally. We have long hoped to provide a home to encourage departmental cohesion, and it is just about to be realized in the form of a new life science building (the Bio Evolution General Education and Research Building). The new building construction in the Bldg. 2 area accords with the university scheme of creating a research complex for life sciences in collaboration with the fields of medicine, pharmacy, engineering and agriculture, and support is being sought from the university administration. We appreciate your continuing support for our activities to realize this so that the new Department of Biological Sciences can most effectively promote new sciences– and show to the world.