Friday, December 4, 2009

Meeting report: "The Architecture of Life"

A few weeks ago, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) Barcelona held its first ever PhD student symposium and I had the pleasure of being part of its organizing committee, along with a few other graduate students. In this post I want to present part of the exciting science discussed there, but first I’d like to briefly highlight the importance of science communication in the life of a scientist

Science, for me, is not just sitting at the bench performing experiments and generating data. An important part of the life of a scientist is the actual communication of his research, not only to the rest of the scientific community, but also, and perhaps just as important, to the non-scientific population.

Regarding the former, I had the chance of getting firsthand experience in organizing a scientific meeting, something for which scientists rarely get any instruction during their careers. This was an exciting experience and I highly recommend it, despite all the hard work involved: in this case, the pros definitely outweighed the costs.

The concept behind this symposium was straightforward: let PhD students organize a meeting for other PhD students. We had to handle every detail, like coming up with the meeting’s theme, contacting scientists of different fields and putting together its website.

Since this was our first time being a part of such a project, we decided to give it a broad orientation, such that would encompass most of the fields studied in our institute. In the end, we booked 8 speakers with very different scientific backgrounds divided in 4 sessions: DNA and RNA, Proteins, Cells and Tissues/Organisms (as you can see, the categories cannot be broader).

We decided on “The Architecture of Life” for the meeting’s theme and so, we intended to start of from the basic building blocks and, throughout the meeting, work our way to whole organisms. I won´t go into much detail regarding the talks, but I do want to give you a brief idea of the wide array of interesting topics addressed.

Starting everything off was Gene Myers and Eric Miska.

As some of you may know, Gene Myers pioneered the BLAST algorithm (which most of us use on a daily basis), and during his talk he gave an overview of its inner workings. He then went on to discuss how he developed the shotgun sequencing strategy (which nowadays is pretty much standard) and he concluded his talk by presenting some of his current work regarding high-throughput image analysis software.

Eric Miska talked about non coding RNAs, with a particular focus in miRNA studies. He works on C elegans, and he showed some very interesting projects aimed at studying the complex biology of miRNAs in this organism. Notably, he showed that the repressive function of certain miRNAs can be stably inherited. If you are interested in this area I recommend you keep an eye on Eric’s work.

The second session focused on protein biology, and we had the opportunity to listen to this year´s Noble laureate Ada Yonath, as well as to the cutting edge science of Tanja Kortemme.

Ada´s talk focused on the ribosome, and she gave an extensive structural overview on how this amazing macromolecular machine works. Furthermore, she talked about how structural insights have led her group to hypothesize about the evolutionary history of the ribosome.

Tanja Kortemme´s talk focused on “protein engineering”. By protein engineering I mean that her group is actually designing and testing new interactions between proteins through a combination of computational structure predictions and old-school classic chemistry, which is mainly used for validation purposes. I think she gave a wonderful talk I consider her work to be very impressive.

The third session combined talks given by two scientists working in very different areas: Wolfgang Baumeister and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz.

In his talk, Wolfgang discussed how the application of EM tomography can help elucidate very complex biological processes. For example, by applying the methodology developed in his lab, they can literally count the number of ribosomes present in a particular subcellular compartment (he showed some beautiful results of studies done in neuron synapses in culture). This can also be used to count other macromolecular complexes present in a particular subcellular location.

Next up was Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, who, in my opinion, gave the best talk in the symposium. Her lab is studying how the first cell-fate decisions are made in the mouse embryo and their question is quite straightforward: how do identical cells end up with such different phenotypes? In her talk, Magdalena summarized the major breakthroughs her lab has made in the last few years. For those who are more interested in the subject I recommend that you read her recent review in Nature Reviews Genetics (doi:10.1038/nrg2564).

The final session, centered on developmental biology, also had two great speakers: Darren Gilmour and Steve Cohen.

Darren´s work focuses on cell migration using zebrafish as a model. His group aims to understand the molecular and biophysical properties underlying the development of the zebrafish lateral line system, an attractive model system for studying cell migration during organogenesis. Interestingly (and I’m leaving out a lot of details), it appears that the leading cells have distinct signaling pathways activated (compared to the lagging ones), that when disturbed inhibit the movement of the entire group of cells.

The final talk was given by Steve Cohen, who is currently studying miRNAs in Drosophila. One of his most attractive projects involves knocking out every single miRNA from the Drosophila genome. Shall this area of research pique your interest, keep your eyes open for his upcoming work and also check out some of his already published research (for example, see PLoS One 2007;2(11):e1265)

That’s it for this brief overview of the symposium we organized, “The Architecture of Life”. This was a great experience and I sincerely hope these sorts of initiatives are imitated in other institutions worldwide.

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