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Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Salk Institute 2.jpg
General information
Type Institutional
Town or city La Jolla
Current tenants Salk Institute
Named for Jonas Salk
Completed 1965
Technical details
Structural system Vierendeel trusses
Material Poured concrete
Floor count 4
Design and construction
Architect Louis I. Kahn
Structural engineer August Komendant
Awards and prizes American Institute of Architects Twenty-five Year Award

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a scientific research institute located in the La Jolla community of San Diego, California on the Pacific coast. The independent, non-profit institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine; among the founding consultants were Jacob Bronowski and Francis Crick. Construction of the research facilities began in spring of 1962. The Salk Institute consistently ranks among the top institutions in the US in terms of research output and quality in the life sciences. In 2004, the Times Higher Education Supplement ranked Salk as the world's top biomedicine research institute, and in 2009 it was ranked number one globally by ScienceWatch in the neuroscience and behavior areas.

The Salk Institute employs 850 researchers in 60 research groups and focuses its research in three areas: molecular biology and genetics; neurosciences; and plant biology. Research topics include aging, cancer, diabetes, birth defects, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, AIDS, and the neurobiology of American Sign Language. The March of Dimes provided the initial funding and continues to support the institute. Research is funded by a variety of public sources, such as the US National Institutes of Health and the State of California; and private organizations such as Paris-based Ipsen, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Waitt Family Foundation. In addition, the internally administered Innovation Grants Program encourages cutting-edge high-risk research. In 2017 the Salk Institute Trustees elected former president of Booz Allen Hamilton, Daniel C. Lewis as Board Chairman.

The institute also served as the basis for Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's 1979 book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts.


Salk and Kahn approached the city of San Diego in March 1960 about a gift of land on the Torrey Pines Mesa and were granted their request after a referendum in June 1960.[1] The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known today as the March of Dimes, provided the initial funding. Construction began in 1962 and a handful of researchers moved into the first laboratory in 1963. Additional buildings housing more laboratories as well as the organizational administrative offices were constructed in the 1990s, designed by Anshen & Allen.

As a memorial to Jonas Salk, a golden engraving lies on the floor at the entrance to the institute: "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."

Francis Crick held the post of J.W. Kieckhefer Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute. His later research centered on theoretical neurobiology and attempts to advance the scientific study of human consciousness. He remained in this post at the Salk Institute until his death in 2004.

50th anniversary celebration

From 22–27 April 2010, the Salk Institute hosted glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly to celebrate 50 years of its inception. The event was underwritten by Irwin Jacobs, past chairman of the board of trustees.

Establishing the institute

Salkinstitute lajolla062005
The Salk Institute at La Jolla

Many supporters, in particular the National Foundation, "helped him build his dream of a research complex for the investigation of biological phenomena 'from cell to society'." Called the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, it opened in 1963 in the San Diego neighborhood of La Jolla. Salk believed that the institution would help new and upcoming scientists along in their careers, as he said himself, "I thought how nice it would be if a place like this existed and I was invited to work there."

In 1966, Salk described his "ambitious plan for the creation of a kind of Socratic academy where the supposedly alienated two cultures of science and humanism will have a favorable atmosphere for cross-fertilization." Author and journalist Howard Taubman explained:

Although he is distinctly future-oriented, Dr. Salk has not lost sight of the institute's immediate aim, which is the development and use of the new biology, called molecular and cellular biology, described as part physics, part chemistry and part biology. The broad-gauged purpose of this science is to understand man's life processes.

There is talk here of the possibility, once the secret of how the cell is triggered to manufacture antibodies is discovered, that a single vaccine may be developed to protect a child against many common infectious diseases. There is speculation about the power to isolate and perhaps eliminate genetic errors that lead to birth defects.

Dr. Salk, a creative man himself, hopes that the institute will do its share in probing the wisdom of nature and thus help enlarge the wisdom of man. For the ultimate purpose of science, humanism and the arts, in his judgment, is the freeing of each individual to cultivate his full creativity, in whichever direction it leads. ... As if to prepare for Socratic encounters such as these, the institute's architect, Louis Kahn, has installed blackboards in place of concrete facings on the walls along the walks.

The New York Times, in a 1980 article celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Salk vaccine, described the current workings at the facility:

At the institute, a magnificent complex of laboratories and study units set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, Dr. Salk holds the titles of founding director and resident fellow. His own laboratory group is concerned with the immunologic aspects of cancer and the mechanisms of autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis, in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues.

In an interview about his future hopes at the institute, he said, "In the end, what may have more significance is my creation of the institute and what will come out of it, because of its example as a place for excellence, a creative environment for creative minds."

Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, was a leading professor at the institute until his death in 2004.

The institute also served as the basis for Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's 1979 book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts.


The Salk Institute, La Jolla, California (1959–1965) was to be a campus composed of three clusters: meeting and conference areas, living quarters, and laboratories. Only the laboratory cluster, consisting of two parallel blocks enclosing a water garden, was built. The two laboratory blocks frame a long view of the Pacific Ocean, accentuated by a thin linear fountain that seems to reach for the horizon. It is "arguably the defining work" of the architect.

The campus was designed by Louis Kahn.[2] Salk had sought a beautiful campus in order to draw the best researchers in the world. Salk and Kahn—having both descended from Russian-Jewish parents that had immigrated to the United States—and had a deeper connection than just partners of an architectural project. The original buildings of the Salk Institute were designated a historical landmark in 1991. The entire 27-acre (11 ha) site was deemed eligible by the California Historical Resources Commission in 2006 for listing in the US National Register of Historic Places.


Salk Institute (20)
Water stream between symmetric building masses flowing towards the ocean.

Jack MacAllister, FAIA, of the Kahn firm was the supervising architect and a major design influence on the structure that consists of two symmetric buildings with a water stream flowing towards the ocean in the middle travertine-paved central plaza that separates the two.[3] In the beginning the buildings were made up of different types of concrete mixes of different color. In the basement of the complex, there are different colored water walls because Kahn was experimenting with the mixtures. The buildings themselves have been designed to promote collaboration, and thus there are no walls separating laboratories on any of the floors. The lighting fixtures on the roof slide along rails thus reflecting the collaborative and open philosophy of the Salk Institute's science. After two years of design work, and after the design had been approved and meetings with building contractors had begun, Kahn and the Salk Institute abruptly decided to reduce the number of laboratory buildings from four narrow ones to two wider ones and to increase the number of floors per building from two to three. Komendant re-engineered the structure and produced a new set of drawings with a speed that professor Leslie described as "legendary". Komendant also trained the construction workers in techniques for producing a highly refined concrete finish.

In 1992 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gave this building its prestigious Twenty-five Year Award, which is given to only one building per year.

Inside the laboratories, the ducts and vents are reinforced by concrete Vierendeel trusses supported by post-tensioned columns. The authorities at the time were very cautious due to the fact that they felt these trusses would not be able to hold in case of an earthquake, but in a tour de force of structural design, August Komendant was able to achieve twice the ductility that a steel frame offered. At first Kahn wanted to put a garden in the middle of the two buildings but, as construction continued, he did not know what shape it should take. When he saw an exhibit of Luis Barragan's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kahn invited Baragan to collaborate on the court that separated the two buildings. Barragan told Kahn that he should not add one leaf, nor plant, not one flower, nor dirt, instead, make it a plaza with a single water feature. The resulting space is considered the most impressive element of the entire design.


According to A. Perez, the concrete was made with volcanic ash relying on the basis of ancient Roman concrete making techniques, and as a result gives off a warm, pinkish glow. This "pozzolanic" concrete was then only vibrated as needed structurally, leaving a lightly textured wall face. The basement also houses the transgenic core. Each laboratory block has five study towers, with each tower containing four offices, except for those near the entrance to the court, which only contain two. A diagonal wall allows each of the thirty-six scientists using the studies to have a view of the Pacific, and every study is fitted with a combination of operable sliding and fixed glass panels in teak wood frames. Originally the design also included living quarters and a conference building, but they were never actually built.

Most of the laboratories and studies are named after the benefactors, such as the Sloan-Swartz Center for Theoretical Neurobiology and the Razavi Newman Center for Bioinformatics. A library that houses current periodicals, some books and computers is located on the 3rd level of the west end of the North building. The Conrad T. Prebys auditorium and the Trustees' Room are located in the basement of the east buildings of the institute.


Salkinstitute lajolla062005
Semi-dwarf Valencia orange trees.

In the courtyard is a citrus grove containing several orderly rows of semi-dwarf Valencia orange trees. This grove replaces the original grove which contained orange and kumquat trees which were then replaced with lime trees in the 1995 grove refurbishment. This latest replacement was due primarily to a need to remove current trees for structural repairs and waterproofing of central plant ceilings. The trees were mulched and used for ground cover in compliance with project commitments to sustainability. The decision not to replant additional lime trees stems from dissatisfaction with the manner in which the current trees defoliate and turn yellow in the shade. The Valencia compensates for shade by producing additional chlorophyll in shaded sections, becoming greener.

Open environment

The Salk Institute replete with empty space is symbolic of an open environment for creation. The contrast between balance and dynamic space manifests a pluralistic invitation for scientific study in structures developed to accommodate their respective functions as parts of a research facility. Although modern in appearance, it is essentially an isolated compound for individual and collaborative study, not unlike monasteries as sanctuaries for religious discovery, and they are thought to have directly influenced Kahn in his design. Ultimately, the Salk Institute's meaning can be interpreted as transcending function and physical place as a reflection of Western civilization's pursuit of truth through science.

In 2014, the Getty Conservation Institute partnered with the Salk Institute to preserve the concrete and teak building which is, due to its coastal location, subject to the punishing rigors of a marine environment.

Structural system

Salk Institute outline of laboratory floor and Vierendeel truss
A section of a laboratory building at the Salk Institute. Above each laboratory floor is a service floor to handle air ducts, piping, etc. The ladder-like structures that encase the service floors are Vierendeel trusses.

In keeping with his design and the philosophy of "served and servant spaces," and as the vast requirement for mechanical spaces were extensive, Kahn decided to create a separate service floor for them above each of the laboratories to make it easier to reconfigure individual laboratories in the future without disrupting neighboring spaces. He also designed each laboratory floor to be entirely free of internal support columns, making laboratory configuration easier. Komendant engineered the Vierendeel trusses that make this arrangement possible. These pre-stressed concrete trusses are about 62 feet (19 m) long, spanning the full width of each floor and extending from the bottom of each service floor to the top. They are supported by steel cables embedded in the concrete in a curve similar to that of cables supporting a suspension bridge. Their rectangular openings, which are 6 feet (1.8 m) high in the center and 5 feet (1.5 m) at the ends, allow maintenance workers to move easily through the thicket of pipes and ducts on the service floors. The trusses impose strictly vertical loads on their support columns, to which they are attached not rigidly but with a system of slip plates and tension cables to permit small movements during moderate earthquakes.

Scientific activities

The institute is organized into several research units, each of which is further composed of several scientific groups, each led by a member of the faculty. Some of these units are:

  • Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory
  • Regulatory Biology Laboratory
  • Structural Biology Laboratory
  • Gene Expression Laboratory
  • Laboratory of Genetics
  • Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory
  • Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory
  • Systems Neurobiology Laboratories
  • Computational Neurobiology Laboratory
  • Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology
  • Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory
  • Chemical Biology and Proteomics Laboratory
  • Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis Laboratory
  • The Renato Dulbecco Laboratories for Cancer Research

Rusty Gage was named to a five-year term to lead the Institute on January 1, 2019. Jan Karlseder is the chair of the academic council. There are 53 faculty members. Five of these are members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and more than a quarter are elected members of the US National Academy of Sciences.

In terms of research output measured by number of publications and citations, the institute is recognized as one of the world's leading institutions in several areas of biology, especially in neurosciences and plant biology.

In December 2009, the Time magazine ranked Joseph R. Ecker's mapping of the human epigenome as the second biggest scientific achievement of 2009.

In May 2008, the California state government announced that it would provide $US270 million for funding California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, a joint effort between Salk Institute, UCSD, Burnham Institute and TSRI, received US$43 million from this funding.

In addition, the institute employs postdoctoral scholars and staff scientists who receive training for academic leadership.

Notable projects

Salk Institute currently runs the Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI), which aims to improve the capability of agricultural crops to sequester carbon. It comprises two programs:

  • CRoPS (CO2 Removal on a Planetary Scale) which aims to develop "Salk Ideal Plants"
  • CPR (Coastal Plant Restoration)

The Salk Ideal Plants are plants that are genetically modified. The intent is to create plants with increased root mass, root depth and suberin content.

Training program

Although the Salk Institute is not a degree-granting institution, it runs a graduate program together with the neighboring UCSD, and all Salk Institute professors receive adjunct appointments in the Division of Biological Sciences at UCSD. In addition, several faculty members are affiliated with other programs such as the Neuroscience Graduate Program and the Cellular and Molecular Medicine. The students pursue either a Ph.D. or an M.D/Ph.D. degree.

Notable faculty members

Nobel laureates

The institute has two Nobel laureates on its faculty: Elizabeth Blackburn and Roger Guillemin. Four of Salk's 11 Nobel laureates were deceased by 2016: Francis Crick, Robert W. Holley, Renato Dulbecco, and Sydney Brenner. Another five scientists trained at Salk have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Former members

  • Stephen Heinemann (1939-2014), early neuroscientist
  • Francis Crick (deceased), Nobel laureate (for DNA double helix structure description).
  • Leslie Orgel (deceased), former Senior Fellow and Research Professor
  • Marguerite Vogt (deceased), virologist.
  • Leo Szilard (deceased), Nuclear physicist, invented radioactive cobalt cancer treatment.
  • Renato Dulbecco (deceased), Nobel laureate (for viral transformation of cells).
  • Melvin Cohn (deceased), co-founder, pioneer in the research of gene regulation
  • Elizabeth Blackburn (former president of Salk Institute), Nobel laureate (for work on telomeres and telomerase with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak).
  • Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) Nobel laureate (for work with Caenorhabditis elegans)
  • Roger Guillemin, co-founder, Nobel laureate (for elucidating the structures of neurohormones TRH and GnRH)
  • Inder Verma, cancer biologist, Editor-in-chief of PNAS journal.
  • Leslie, Thomas (2005). Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science. New York: George Braziller, Inc.ISBN: 0-8076-1543-9
  • Weston, Richard (2004). Key buildings of the twentieth century: plans, sections, and elevations. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 138. ISBN: 978-0-393-73145-3
  • Wiseman, Carter. Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, ISBN: 978-0393731651


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