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EATTLE — Some of the best science here gets done in the coffee line.

You can insert your Starbucks jokes here. But when the Allen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to neuroscience and cell biology, set about designing a new, $200 million building, CEO Allan Jones deliberately chose to consolidate the coffee area in one spot. And to put in just four coffee machines for 300 employees.

That way, everyone has to get out of their cubicle and mix.

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That’s just one of the quirky design features in the new headquarters, which is hosting a science showcase this week as an informal grand opening.

To further push scientists out of their silos — and encourage a lively exchange of ideas — the Institute has scrambled its seating plan.

“Your cubicle, if you are a software developer, might be next to an electrophysiologist, who might be next to a gene jock, who might be next to a neuroanatomist,” Jones said. “The design of this building was meant to carry that mixing through in very interesting ways.”

The Allen Institute needs to have all hands on deck to reach its ambitious goals. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen started the brain science wing of the institute in 2003, and has committed more than $500 million of his fortune to creating open-source tools to advance neuroscience.

Late last year, Allen also launched the cell science division, with another $100 million commitment, as a place to probe the fundamental units of life. The goal is to produce a 3-D model of the cell that could help scientists predict how a drug will work with our inner biology, just as computer models can predict how an airplane will fly.

The grand challenge is creating what Jones calls “a periodic table of the brain.” It’s essentially a parts list for all the cells, with a basic description of what they do.

Before opening the new headquarters, the institute sprawled across four buildings in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. That made communication more difficult. The new space, overlooking Lake Union, is closer to downtown and consolidates most research in one spot, though the institute’s artificial intelligence work still takes place in a separate office. It will also allow them to expand from a current staff of about 300 to roughly 500 in the coming years.

Allen Institute
The central atrium of the Allen Institute’s new headquarters in Seattle. Allen Institute

The new building is a curious thing. It stands six stories tall and takes up a full 1.2-acre city block. The footprint is oddly shaped, resembling, some staffers joke, the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame.

Rather than jam a square box onto that strange footprint, the Institute tried to maximize every square foot it had.

The architects created a central atrium filled with natural light, with open stairways spiraling up every floor. Like a blooming rose, each floor has a “petal” in it, an impromptu gathering place at the top of a stairwell with a whiteboard and some chairs. That’s designed to allow people to have meetings on the fly.

The inside of the labs are equally well-outfitted. Two-photon microscopy machines allow them to see which brain cells are firing, in real time, in awake animals. They’ve developed genetically modified mice that can be used to probe exactly what certain genes and neural circuits do. And a new recruit from Stanford University, Stephen Smith, is bringing along array tomography technology that allows for detailed staining of brain samples so scientists can look at the structure of synapses, or connections between neurons. 

Many neuroscientists have come to use the Allen Institute’s anatomical brain maps as part of their everyday research. “My team uses the Allen Brain Atlas on a regular basis and we trust the data,” said Jim Olson, a pediatric brain cancer researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “For the entire neuroscience field, it has proven to be extremely valuable … I hope that the move [to the new building] facilitates collaboration, which has not always been easy.”

The institute collaborates with local neurosurgery units to collect precious pieces of human brain tissue removed during surgery. Mouse brains don’t last long, but human brain tissue can be kept alive for as long as five days in the lab for testing, Jones said. Surgeons may consider the discarded tissue medical waste. “But great science can be done from it,” he said.

Like most basic science, it’s hard to say where it all will lead. The Allen Institute has generated some surprising research results of late. In this month’s issue of Nature Neuroscience, for example, scientists reported that, despite the anatomical complexity of the brain and the variation in the 20,000 genes of the human genome, most differences in brain function can be explained by the expression patterns of just 32 genes.

How exactly those genes work to produce the wide range of minds around us is still far from clear. But maybe, at some point, a coffee line conversation will lead to the next flash of insight. 

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