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4 | 2008-2009
The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers

2009: the Concarneau marine biology laboratory celebrates its 150th anniversary

Yves Le Gal
p. 51-54
Cet article est une traduction de :
2009 : le laboratoire de biologie marine de Concarneau a 150 ans

Texte intégral

1The Concarneau “fishpool-laboratory”, later to become the Concarneau Marine Biology Station or Laboratory, was officially created in 1859. It is thus the oldest marine research institute in the world.

2In the strong thrust of scientific activity in the 19th century, the development of marine biology was a general phenomenon throughout Europe and the Americas, and in which France played a key part.

3Not that “scientists” showed no interest in marine life prior to that. Long before painters and tourists, naturalists went to discover the sea. They covered long distances by stagecoach, made contact with fishermen, and set up very basic facilities: “… all that we have found here are the four walls of three rooms in a dingy thatched cabin…” (Jean-Victor Audouin at Chausey in 1828). Their ventures sometimes took them to disreputable inns where the same table was often used for their dissections and for the evening meal. At Saint-Quay, the landlady, frightened by Lacaze-Duthiers’ microscope, believed he was “a sorcerer who prevented the buckwheat pancakes, that were the main component of her menu from going off.”

4The oldest marine station still operating is the one founded in the 1850s at Concarneau by Victor Coste.

Coste and Guillou

Victor CosteVictor Coste

Victor Coste

© Archives du Collège de France

5Originally Victor Coste, a renowned scholar, Professor at the Collège de France, medical doctor, and close to the ruling elite of the Second Empire, combined basic and applied research. Charged by Napoleon III with the mission of obtaining information on fishing and fish breeding on the coasts of France and Italy, with a view to improving techniques, he visited those areas[3] and planned to set up fishpools for studying the development, physiology and behaviour of marine animals, for breeding purposes. Today we would call this fish farming. After several trials, especially in breeding oysters in the Saint Brieuc Bay, Coste formed a partnership with the captain of the port of Concarneau, Etienne Guillou[4], who was to become a trader and consultant. As General Inspector of Fishing, personal physician of Empress Eugénie, and friend of the ruling elite, Coste easily obtained large grants as well as the support of the Brest arsenal, and commissioned the construction of the pools that are still there today. The fishpool-laboratory was operational in 1862. It is described in detail in the book by Reverent Davies, Chasse aux loups en Bretagne[5].

6During the early years criticism was severe: “far from being an agricultural farm where the fish farmer and oyster farmer can obtain information, the Concarneau institution has remained a private reserve of fish and shellfish[11]”. In fact the station was nearly closed down at one stage. By setting up his fishpool-laboratory on the concession requested by a private individual, Coste created a complicated situation that was only resolved in 1928, thanks to the efforts of the then director, René Legendre.

7The Coste fishpool-laboratory, built in around 1859 with public funds and despite criticism (from rivals?), quickly became a centre of attraction for researchers from the Museum of Natural History and the faculties of Lille and Paris. Its creation was followed closely by that of Roscoff (1871), Banyuls (1880), Arcachon (1883), Wimereux, Sète, Villefranche, and the Russian zoological station, among others. Lacaze-Duthiers, founder of the Roscoff and Banyuls stations, claimed that the “two laboratories [his own?] suffice, whereas they’re building them all over”.

8The multiplicity and diversity of marine stations nevertheless continued to meet a scientific need, for long after the spate of new stations set up in the late 19th century (Plymouth, Dove, Woods Hole, etc.), others were still being founded throughout the world.

Research and its applications

9A few personalities stand out amongst the host of renowned researchers who worked at Concarneau.

10In the 1880s strong impetus was given to the station by Georges Pouchet, professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum, and author of a large number of publications on the vision of cirriped crustaceans, the mimicry of the cuttlefish, the histology of the amphioxus – the first link with vertebrates –, the biology of the sardine – a crucial subject for fishing and the economic life of Brittany’s ports –, and on plankton. Pouchet was the first to describe and identify dinoflagellate species like Dinophysis, responsible for the production of toxins and the contamination of molluscs.

11But Pouchet’s presence at Concarneau is also interesting in another respect, for under his direction and that of his teacher Robin, Concarneau exerted an influence on French positivist thinking[1, 4]. It was Robin and Pouchet who obtained the material for Michelet’s book on the sea. In 1875 Flaubert sojourned at Concarneau, where he took advantage of the tranquillity to write, and observed his friend Pouchet (Pécuchet) dissecting marine animals[6].

Cultivating the sea

12Coste’s laboratory was at least partly an applied research station, with the constant dream of becoming a substitute for nature, where marine animals could be bred.

13After capturing oyster spat, the base of current oyster farming, he launched lobster and crayfish breeding, but less successfully. Lobsters and crayfish are predators that have to be fed and have complex stages of development. It is essential to be thoroughly familiar with their biology, their feeding behaviours, and so on. In short, one has to start with basic marine biology.

14In the 1880s Fabre-Domergue and his colleague Bietrix achieved a remarkable technical feat by breeding sole. However, as for crayfish and many marine species, the complexity of the processes to implement was considerable, due to the conditions of development of the larvae (drastic alterations of their morphology with the migration of the eye) and their feeding habits. For each period in a sole’s life there are very specific types of food, consisting mainly of live prey. The difficulties are such that, even today, it is more rational to directly manage the natural stocks of these species.

19th century cari...19th century caricature

19th century caricature

© Archives du Collège de France.

From physiology to biochemistry

15Many scholars have marked the scientific history of Concarneau: among others, Pouchet, mentioned above, Laguesse, whose work laid the foundations for the discovery of insulin, and Arsonval, who studied the electric organ of the stingray and whose model is still used in neurobiology. But it is probably Laurent Chabry who earned Concarneau its renown in the international scientific community. This young director of the marine station wanted to understand why, in nature, embryos harvested in the plankton of the Concarneau Bay showed signs of abnormal development. With admirable patience and veritable experimental genius, he created the first tools of micromanipulation. These enabled him to establish, for the first time, the nature of the potential to evolve that the eggs of various different marine invertebrates have. Chabry showed that in ascidians (organisms that on the evolutionary scale can be situated between the Echinodermata and vertebrates), the destruction of a cell at an early stage can lead to the disappearance or deformation of whole organs. But Chabry’s scientific genius was primarily evidenced when he pointed out that what is true for ascidians is not necessarily so for all animals. In other organisms, so-called “mosaic” development implies a gradual rearrangement, up to a certain point of information necessary for the development of the embryo. Chabry’s thesis, in 1887, is considered as a founding element of experimental embryology. His name nevertheless remains relatively unknown in France. Yet when I introduced myself to a researcher at the large marine biology centre of Woods Hole in the US, during a visit in around 1990, he immediately replied: “Concarneau, Chabry’s laboratory!”

16For many years Concarneau was a reference in the fields of comparative and marine biochemistry. Current trends towards molecular systematics and biotechnologies are the consequence.

17Biochemists invested in the Concarneau station from the 1930s, in particular Maurice Nicloux, who developed methods for gas assays in biologial fluids, later to be used in medical biology, and Jean Roche, whose work on iodine in marine organisms led him to identify the active thyroid hormone (T3 triiodothyronine) in 1952.

18It was with the Belgian biochemist Marcel Florkin and then his colleagues Ng. Van Thoai and Yvonne Robin that Roche developed comparative biochemistry and identified structural differences in molecules that perform identical functions in different organisms: haemoglobin and phosphagens. This work spawned a view of evolution based no longer only on forms but on molecules. Biochemical evolution thus opened onto another domain: biochemical ecology.

19For 150 years, under different supervisory authorities – the Collège de France, the National Museum of Natural History – the researchers at the station have explored the marine world from various original and often innovative angles: development biology, dynamics of marine species, and evolution of species. As a station for basic research, its activities have thus been increasingly relevant to economic activity: fishing, aquaculture, and biotechnologies.

Concarneau: scientific knowledge of the marine world

20Today, the Concarneau marine biology station is a higher education and research institution. It has 25 permanent lecturer-researchers, researchers, engineers and technicians, and a total of over 40 researchers, PhD students and French and foreign under-graduate students who participate annually in its activity.

21The laboratory’s scientific publications in the fields of physiology, molecular biology, and marine population studies attest to the quality of its research and meet the highest international standards.

22Two of its researchers – Alain Van Wormhoudt and Martine Fouchereau-Peron – have been distinguished by awards from the Academy of Sciences. PhDs trained at Concarneau ‘export’ their skills abroad, for example to the US, the UK, Portugal, etc.

23The modest size of the institution is essentially an asset which facilitates the creativity and scientific production of work in dynamic specialized networks. In several sectors the marine station is an international reference. Its teams have initiated the creation of European marine biotechnology networks, in which they coordinate scientific cooperation on several international projects.

Concarneau: at the service of the economy

24The results of research carried out at the Concarneau marine biology station are directly applied in the local and European economic contexts. Situated upstream from industrial innovation, the stations’ research is at the centre of European technology transfer networks. Technological collaboration underway with several firms in Brittany, especially in the fields of heath, nutraceutics and cosmetics, bears witness to industry’s recognition of the station’s know-how.

Concarneau: scientific culture

The marine biolog...The marine biology laboratory, seen from the ocean

The marine biology laboratory, seen from the ocean

© Laffaite, MNHN.

25Scientific culture is fully part of citizens’ general knowledge. In this respect, both the National Museum of Natural History and the Collège de France offer lectures and talks open to all. The Museum also fulfils this mission through its exhibitions and museums. At Concarneau, the Marinarium is the main vehicle of this dissemination of knowledge, in addition to the organization of lectures for all types of public, in partnership with local institutions.

26The Marinarium, the laboratory’s showcase since 1972, invites visitors to immerse themselves in marine life and to discover the importance of the oceans and their extraordinary biodiversity, the universe of plankton, the immense richness of the littoral, and the protection and management of marine resources. Its aquariums of local flora and fauna are ample illustrations. Through the numerous events offered, it plays an important educational role for both school children and the general public, to make them aware of the importance of respecting the natural environment. The Marinarium is firmly entrenched in local life and regularly collaborates with another marine cultural centre in Concarneau, the fishing museum.

The marine biolog...The marine biology laboratory, seen from the continent

The marine biology laboratory, seen from the continent

© P. Llegou, Collège de France.

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1. Paul Harry W., From knowledge to power – the rise of the science power in France - 1860-1939, London, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

2. Lacaze-Duthiers H. de, Le monde de la mer et ses laboratoires, Assn. Fse Avt. Sciences. Oran, 1st part, Masson, Paris, 1888, pp. 347-385.

3. Coste V., Voyage d’exploration sur les côtes de France et d’Italie, Imprimerie Impériale Paris, 1855.

4. Bouxin H. and Roche J., Le Laboratoire de Concarneau et son centenaire, Imp. Letendre, Concarneau, 1959.

5. Davies, E.W.L., Chasse aux loups et autres chasses en Basse-Bretagne. (1855) Re-published in 1985, Plougonven, Les Editions du bout du monde.

6. Flaubert G., Correspondance, Vol. III (1864-1876), Librairie de France, Paris, 1924.

7. Fisher J. L., “Experimental embryology in France”, Int. J. Dev., 1990, 34 11-23.

8. Chabry L., Embryologie normale et tératologique des Ascidies, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1887.

9. Fabre-Domergue and Biétrix E., Développement de la Sole. Introduction à l’étude de la pisciculture marine, Paris, Vuibert, 1905.

10. Florkin M., L’évolution biochimique, Liège, Desoer, 1950.

11. Cf. “L’établissement de Concarneau”, Le magasin pittoresque, 37e année, 1869, p. 301.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Victor Coste
Crédits © Archives du Collège de France
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre 19th century caricature
Crédits © Archives du Collège de France.
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Laurent Chabry
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre The marine biology laboratory, seen from the ocean
Légende © Laffaite, MNHN.
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre The marine biology laboratory, seen from the continent
Crédits © P. Llegou, Collège de France.
Fichier image/jpeg, 81k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 51-54. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Yves Le Gal, « 2009: the Concarneau marine biology laboratory celebrates its 150th anniversary », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 27 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Yves Le Gal

Honorary Deputy Director of the Collège de France Marine Biology Laboratory affiliated to the National Museum of Natural History, Concarneau Marine Biology Station

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