Top 5 Highlights from WORM2013!

I will always remember June 2013 as a whirlwind month of airports, poster sessions, and far too little sleep. On final count, I took 10 flights out of 8 different airports through 11 states, 4 time zones, and 2 countries! After giving myself a bit of July to recover, I am glad to report that June was a marvelous success, inspiring me with new research ideas and lighting a fire under me to get to writing! I believe my next blog may be a photo tour of June 2013, but until then… let’s talk worms!

My last stop for the month was the 19th International C. elegans Meeting at UCLA in Los Angeles, California! In many ways, this trip was reminiscent of my trip to Cancun (discussed here).

For one, the temperatures were similar:

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And secondly, another beautiful location:

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While roaming through the rows and rows of posters, it was easy to identify the “unreasonably tan” colleagues who had also attended the ICDB conference in Cancun the previous week. Think of it as Where’s Waldo:

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And just like Cancun, I learned a lot about really cool science at WORM2013! So, in the spirit of my last blog post, here are my top 5 highlights from my week in LA at WORM2013:

#1: The hot topic: chromatin remodeling during stress!

I remain a bit partial to this topic, as it is the focus of my own research, but I was extremely excited to see so many fabulous talks and posters focusing on the relationship between chromatin remodeling and stress response! In particular, Christian Riedel from Gary Ruvkun’s lab demonstrated that the SWI/SNF chromatin-remodeling complex is required for DAF-16 (FOXO) gene-activation, and ultimately DAF-16 dependent longevity. This work was recently published in Nature Cell Biology and can be found here. Excitingly, David Fay also described a role for SWI/SNF in stress response, as a mediator of the ethanol and stress-response element (ESRE) pathway. These talks, along with multiple posters (including mine!), really begin to illustrate the critical requirement for chromatin remodeling in a multitude of stress response pathways.

#2: Transdifferentiation… is awesome.

As a trainee in developmental biology, and after recently listening to John Gordun discussing the challenges in transdifferentiation at ISDB2013, Joel Rothman’s talk blew me away. While Gordun’s talk emphasized how removal of chromatin marks specific to differentiated cells is one of the most difficult aspects of transdifferentiation, Rothman described a phenomenon in worms in which this process is not even necessary!  Expressing a single transcription factor, elt-7, resulted in the conversion of differentiated pharynx into endoderm, even in the absence of cell division. This talk was definitely one of the “THAT IS SO COOL” moments of WORM2013 for me.

#3: Memorable talks about teeth, exercise, and sex

Based on the conference twitter feed and the chatter buzzing about the crowd, the next 3 talks were some of the most memorable, as well as the most unique! Mary Ann Royal of the Driscoll lab showed that 30 minutes of swimming a day results in increased pharyngeal pumping later in life, suggesting that “exercising” has health benefits even in worms! Eric Ragsdale of the Sommer lab wowed the crowd with a gruesome video of P. pacificus chowing down on an unsuspecting C. elegans. His talk then went on to focus on the genetic control of a developmental teeth dimorphism in P. pacificus by a sulfatase encoded by eud-1. Finally, Cheng Shi of the Murphy lab pointed out a phenomenon we all felt we should have noticed previously: N2 worms shrink up to 30% after mating! These animals, in addition to a reduction in size, also are less attractive to other males, and live shorter lives. As male seminal fluid contributes to this phenomenon, it may represent an example of male influence on hermaphrodites to maximize their own reproductive success. Overall, Mary Ann, Eric, and Cheng definitely win the “most memorable” superlatives of WORM2013.

#4: More disease models in C. elegans

As a scientist working in model organisms, I am always excited to hear about disease models in C. elegans, as it is a great way to study the genetic basis of human disease. Susana Garcia from the Ruvkun lab introduced a worm model designed to investigate the toxicity of CUG repeat-containing RNA, which is commonly associated with the human disease myotonic dystrophy. Garcia discovered that the nonsense mediated decay pathway normally functions to clear these toxic repeats, suggesting that it may be a good target for future myotonic dystrophy research.

Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy is due to mutation in the lamin protein. A.  Mattout from the Gasser lab demonstrated that this mutation, in worms, leads to failed tissue-specific release of heterochromatin and disrupted muscle function. By restoring chromatin organization through genetic manipulation, Mattout was able to fully rescue muscle function in these animals, suggesting that chromatin mislocalization may be of particular importance in human laminopathies.

#5: New insight into everyone’s favorite topic, insulin-like signaling!

It wouldn’t be a worm meeting without several dozen talks and posters about the FOXO transcription factor DAF-16. This year was no exception, but it was great to see some really remarkable new discoveries in a field that has garnered so much interest in the worm community! To highlight just a few, Adrian Wolstenholme from the University of Bath demonstrated the discovery of the sole glutamate transporter in worms, FGT-1! Additionally, Ronald Tepper from the Bussemaker lab at Columbia gave a great talk on the identification of PQM-1, the main regulator of the class II growth and development genes originally thought to be directly activated by DAF-16.

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As you can tell from the sheer number of talks I’ve mentioned, there was a huge amount of elegant science and interesting discoveries at WORM2013. Visit the meeting’s website for full abstracts and dates of future WORM events!

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Top 5 Highlights from ICDB 2013!

It seems that I have neglected my blog a bit this month, but thankfully this is due to an exciting (and exhausting!) month of travel! As of June 1st, I have been to 10 states, 4 time zones, and 2 countries!

I began my whirlwind month in Maryland visiting my family and attending Alumni Weekend at my undergraduate institution, St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This trip was full of crabs, sunshine, and reminiscing with old friends. All in all, it was a great way to get reenergized for conference season!

Speaking of conferences…

A few months ago, I gave a talk at the Northwest Regional Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) meeting, and was beyond excited to win a travel award to attend SDB’s national meeting! Excitingly, this year the national SDB collaborated with other international societies to host the 17th International Congress of Developmental Biology!

The conference was fabulous, and I could blog for hours about all of the amazing science that I got to hear about at the conference. But to save us all some time, here are my top 5 highlights of my trip to ICDB 2013!!

#1: The meeting was held in CANCUN, MEXICO!

Here’s a photograph from my hotel room: IMG_5125

And another from my favorite beach chair:

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Need I say more? The location was absolutely incredible, with a very quick walk to the convention center, seen here across the street from my hotel:

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Located on the top floor of the Cancun Convention Center, the meeting was held in one large room that was easily separated into 3 concurrent sessions for some of the afternoons. The layout of the meeting made it really easy to bounce between rooms, so you could catch talks in all sorts of topics and disciplines. Additionally, posters were constantly on display in the break room, giving attendees plenty of time to scour the 600 excellent posters!

#2: Enhancers play a role in human disease, evolution… and just about everything you could imagine.

Enhancers really stole the show at this year’s meeting. Many of the talks, a large number of posters, and a lot of coffee break chatter surrounded some fascinating studies into the role of these noncoding regions of DNA in development.

For my developmental biology novices, let’s quickly define enhancers. Our genome consists of long sequences of DNA, in which some regions code for functional proteins, and some regions do not. Enhancers are found within this noncoding region of DNA and are thought to modulate the activity of proteins transcribed from nearby regions of coding DNA.

Schematic of enhancers (green), found upstream of effected genes (blue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schematic of enhancers (green), found upstream of effected genes (blue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do we identify enhancers? Chicks are often the best tool for identifying conserved enhancers, as their genome is compact and conserved noncoding regions are likely to contain important regulatory information.

Scientists have long been confused about how mutations in noncoding regions of DNA lead to human disease, but as described at ICDB 2013, many of these mutations are starting to be identified as being located within enhancer regions.

One of my favorite talks of the week was from Harvard’s Cliff Tabin. Many human traits seem to have regressed from the traits found in monkeys (less body hair, shorter fingers, etc.). Regressive traits often come from loss of enhancers upstream of trait-determining genes. Cliff’s lab has demonstrated that the human genome is enriched for deletions in transcription start sites and enhancer regions, suggesting that loss of enhancers did in fact contribute to our regressive loss of monkey-like traits.

For more information on the ICDB enhancer talks, check out the lab websites of Cliff TabinMarianne Bronner, and Alvaro Iglesias!

#3: There was a WHOLE SESSION on how the environment impacts development! 

My particular interest in developmental biology focuses around the long-term impact of environmental stress on phenotype and physiology. I was pleasantly surprised to find an entire session of talks dedicated to this topic!

While many human diseases can be attributed to genetic predisposition, environmental conditions can exaggerate these disease phenotypes.  Sally Dunwoodie gave a great talk discussing how low oxygen conditions (hypoxia) during early development increases the penetrance of genetically heritable scoliosis. Teiya Kijimoto demonstrated that genes involved in classical developmental decisions, including Hedgehog signaling, also control environmentally induced traits, such as horn size in dung beetles!

#4: Improving undergraduate interest in research with projects designed straight from the headlines!

The education section of ICDB 2013 focused on how we can interest students with research projects on current hot topics in the media.  I think this a great idea, as it is so much easier to get excited about science when you know that you are contributing to a relevant and important cause.

Barresi lab uses Deepwater Horizion oil spill as inspiration for undergraduate research (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barresi lab uses Deepwater Horizion oil spill as inspiration for undergraduate research (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, Michael Barresi described the upper division research course he designed to investigate the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill on the development of fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Tyrone Hayes gave an eye-opening talk on the impact of the pesticide atrazine on the sexual behavior and fertility of frogs. Additionally, Tyrone showed correlations between his research on frogs and the decline in fertility of men in close contact with pesticides.

#5: Alternative model organisms are awesome!

As a scientist who works in a commonly used model organism, I am always impressed by the amount of work that goes into the implementation of new and alternative model organisms. This meeting did not disappoint, as I got to hear some really great talks about using tunicates, frogs, and honeybees for scientific research. Many of these tools are being developed to overcome the shortcomings of our current model systems and allow us to address questions that are currently unanswerable.

Nanette Nascone-Yoder introduced the Budgett’s frog- a giant cannibalistic Xenopus alternative that allows for higher resolution of frog development!

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Budgett’s Frog (Photo credit: wikipedia)

Robert Drewell discussed how DNA methylation in the eusocial honeybee is a new example of genomic imprinting!

Honeybees (Photo credit: NJDEP)

Honeybees (Photo credit: NJDEP)

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To summarize, the ICDB 2013 meeting was a great experience!

Tomorrow, I am off to the International Caenorhabditis elegans meeting at UCLA! Follow me on twitter @em_fawcett and look for my live tweets with #worm2013!

And look forward to another top 5 blog post next week!