The roots of the EMBL-EBI lie in the EMBL Nucleotide Sequence Data Library (now known as EMBL-Bank), which was established in 1980 at the EMBL laboratories in Heidelberg, Germany and was the world's first nucleotide sequence database. The original goal was to establish a central computer database of DNA sequences, to supplement sequences submitted to journals. What began as a modest task of abstracting information from literature soon became a major database activity with direct electronic submissions of data and the need for highly skilled informatics staff. The task grew in scale with the start of the genome projects, and grew in visibility as the data became relevant to research in the commercial sector. It soon became apparent that the EMBL Nucleotide Sequence Data Library needed better financial security to ensure its long-term viability and to cope with the sheer scale of the task.
There was also a need for research and development to provide services, to collaborate with global partners to support the project, and to provide assistance to industry. To this end, in 1992, the EMBL Council voted to establish the European Bioinformatics Institute and to locate it at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in the United Kingdom where it would be in close proximity to the major sequencing efforts at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. From 1992 through to 1994, a gradual transition of the activities in Heidelberg took place, until in September 1994 the EMBL-EBI occupied its current location on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus.
When the EMBL-EBI moved to Hinxton it hosted two databases, one for nucleotide sequences (the EMBL Data Library, which was renamed EMBL-Bank and eventually became part of the European Nucleotide Archive) and one for protein sequences (Swiss-Prot–TrEMBL, now known as UniProt). Since then, the EMBL-EBI has diversified to provide data resources in all the major molecular domains and expanded to include a broad research base. It provides user support and offers advanced training in bioinformatics.
As part of EMBL, the largest part of EMBL-EBI's funding comes from the governments of EMBL's 21 member states. Other major funders include the European Commission, Wellcome Trust, US National Institutes of Health, UK Research Councils, EMBL-EBI's industry partners and the UK Department of Trade and Industry. In addition, the Wellcome Trust provides the facilities for the EMBL-EBI on its Genome Campus at Hinxton, and the UK Research Councils have provided funds for EMBL-EBI's facilities in Hinxton.