Starting with some ambitious goals and a handful of research centres in 2012, the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) — South Korea’s flagship research organization for pure research — has developed into a web of more than 30 research centres that cover fields as diverse as underground physics, genome engineering, climate physics, biology, biomedical science and quantum nanoscience. Fostering an environment of scientific creativity and limitless imagination is challenging, but this is what IBS set out to achieve, providing research centres with a substantial endowment of funding and the freedom to set their own agendas. For researchers, this is a dream come true, and the IBS research system has inspired a new level of creativity, adaptability and nimbleness.
Pivoting to deal with an emergent threat
The director of the IBS Center for RNA Research in Seoul, one of IBS’s first clutch of centres, Narry Kim has nurtured her group into a rich research ecosystem of eight teams undertaking fundamental research across molecular cell biology, biochemistry, proteomics, genomics, regenerative medicine and viral immunology.
“This approach to research was really a new concept in South Korea when we started in 2012,” Kim recalls. “Setting up an institute from scratch was an adventure, an exciting experiment where we felt free to explore audacious new ideas and recruit the researchers we wanted. We also had the freedom to change direction when needed and reallocate funding and resources.”
For many experimentalists, the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized their research, but for Kim and her team, it was an opportunity to repay society. “When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in January 2020, we knew we had to shift direction to address this emerging crisis using all the expertise at our disposal. In our case, it was the experience and expertise in viral RNA metabolism we had accumulated since the MERS threat six years earlier.”
Like SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is a coronavirus, which, like all other coronaviruses, depends on RNA metabolism for survival. Simply put, a coronavirus particle is a strand of RNA wrapped in a protein envelope. When it latches onto one of our own cells using its enigmatic spike protein, it invades the cell and hijacks the cellular machinery to reproduce more of the viral RNA. It is thus vital to understand and describe the RNA genome sequence in order to develop countermeasures against the virus.
“We understood the urgency and set out to analyse the genome of SARS-CoV-2 as quickly as possible, leveraging our in-house facilities and multidisciplinary expertise in sequencing and bioinformatics,” says Kim. “IBS funding allowed us to set up our own complete sequencing facility. Our high-resolution SARS-CoV-2 genome map has since been widely used by many researchers.”
As part of a longer term, fundamental research programme, Kim’s team is now comparing the genomes of various coronaviruses. They are also studying RNA-mediated immunity, including how cellular immune systems deal with foreign RNA. “SARS-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last virus to affect humanity, and so we need to prepare for the next pandemic,” warns Kim. “IBS allows us to think long term, combine different disciplines, and develop young researchers through the Young Scientist Fellowship to incubate teams that will continue this research into the future.”
Understanding the critical role of the vascular system in major diseases
Gou Young Koh has long been studying the vascular system in humans. He first proposed the idea that each human organ has its own unique system and physiology of blood and lymphatic vessels. His concept was novel 15 years ago, but his elucidation of a system of discrete vasculatures is now commonly accepted and has opened up many new areas of anatomical and physiological research. With the establishment of the IBS Center for Vascular Research in 2015, Koh was finally given the resources and time to explore some of the fundamental questions that this discovery presents.
“It really was a dream come true to have the opportunity to lead fundamental research in this new area that I helped to create,” says Koh. “We began our research looking at the lymphatic system — how it works, how it drains waste fluids from the brain, and how cancer cells can move through lymphatic vessels and survive and thrive in the draining lymph node, which is full of T cells and other immune cells that should make it a very hostile environment.”
Their knowledge of blood and lymphatic vasculatures proved invaluable in rising to the challenge of COVID-19. Koh didn’t hesitate to redirect his team to study the pathogenesis of COVID-19. They used screening assays to systematically explore how COVID-19 is contracted, how the virus initially infects the respiratory tract, and how it is then able to colonize other parts of the body. This allowed them to discover a new vascular system of the nose, which appears to play a critical role in SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“When we dissected the pathogenesis step-by-step, we found new and unique vessels in the nasal cavity, and we are currently studying whether they are closely related with a systemic spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” says Koh. “This hints at the possibility of increasing immunity via the nasal cavity, and of nasal delivery of preventatives or treatments, as well as the potential role of nasal epithelial cells in disease progression.”
Koh credits the unique research environment at IBS as a key factor in his team’s success. “Having the facilities and all the expertise across different disciplines here in the one centre, and being able to coordinate all that research toward a single goal are what makes IBS special,” he says.
Seeking new depths to unlock the mysteries of the Universe
In an active iron mine under a mountain just over 100 kilometres east of Seoul, one of the world’s most advanced physics experiments is about to begin. A kilometre below ground, Yemilab is Korea’s new flagship underground physics research facility, adding to the world-class research already being conducted at the shallower Yangyang Underground Laboratory to the north.
“Our main purpose is to discover new knowledge about dark matter in the Universe,” says Yeongduk Kim, director of the IBS Center for Underground Physics. “Since establishing our research centre more than eight years ago, we have advanced our understanding of the properties of neutrinos — subatomic particles that have a tiny mass but are energetic enough to be detected if generated by nuclear reactors. They are one of the prime candidates for the dark matter thought to make up most of the mass in the Universe.”
Hunting for neutrinos, however, is a monumental undertaking. Their properties have been theoretically studied in terms of double-beta decay, in which two neutrons in an atomic nucleus are simultaneously transformed into two protons without emitting any neutrinos. The best hope for detecting this decay is to prepare dense, high-purity crystals containing isotopes with the highest decay potential, and monitor them at low temperature, deep underground away from sources of interference. This requires a huge team of experts in particle, nuclear and experimental physics, crystal growth, sensor technology and cryogenics at temperatures a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.
“Breakthroughs in this area of physics take decades and contributions from many different fields working together cohesively,” explains Kim. “Through the Center for Underground Physics, we have now completed the first phase of the Yemilab as our first major goal, and we will soon establish ourselves as one of the leading experiments in this field in the world.”
Kim knows that this project is only viable with IBS’s vision for basic research. “It is only thanks to IBS that such long-term fundamental research such as this is possible here in South Korea,” he says.