Conference Visit: “Joint meeting of the Portuguese, Spanish, and British societies for Developmental Biology”; Portugal 7th-10th Oct, 2015

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On the 7th October, I travelled to the Alfamar beach resort in the Algarve, south Portugal to attend the Joint meeting of the Portuguese, Spanish, and British societies for Developmental Biology. The location of the meeting was a welcome getaway from the wet and cold of Oxford, although we found it hard to resist spending the entirety of the conference basking in the sun at the beach!
The meeting involved over a hundred developmental biologists and commenced with an evening plenary lecture on the principles of pluripotency by Austin Smith. His talk focussed on the current challenges preventing the establishment of human naïve pluripotent ES cells that are independent of pluripotency transgenes. The lecture ended with a reception during which we had the opportunity to network and discuss science over a glass of Portuguese wine.

The following morning’s session focussed on neural differentiation and began with Kate Storey, discussing the role of apical abscission in chick neural tube development. This was followed by Cristina Pujades’s talk on the role of actino-myosin contraction during neuronal differentiation in Zebrafish embryo. With an English and a Spanish speaker, the first session ended with a talk by a Portuguese speaker Leonor Saude. She discussed somite formation in the Zebrafish embryo and the role of Mesogenin 1 in cellular differentiation during the conversion of tail bud progenitors into pre-somitic mesoderm. After lunch, we were free to explore Alfamar beach, where some of us made scientific connections over a friendly game of football and even with Zumba!

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In the evening, the poster sessions began over cheese and wine. During this, I presented on “Molecular mechanism of radiation sensitivity in planarian stem cells”. It was encouraging to see people who were interested to know more about planarians (many having never heard of these animals before!) and their robust regenerative capacity. Close to my designated stand was Audrey Laurent (Italy) with a poster on epiblast hypersensitivity to radiation. I was interested by the fact that during implantation and gastrulation, mouse pluripotent epiblast cells exhibit hypersensitivity to DNA damage compared to other cells. Upon low-dose irradiation, epiblasts cells undergo mitotic arrest followed by p53-dependent apoptosis, whereas the other cell types simply arrest. This protective mechanism is dependent on the recruitment of the p53 binding protein 53BP1 to the epiblasts cells, allowing apoptosis to be rapidly induced in these cells following DNA damage.

At the talk sessions post dinner, Sally Lowell gave an exciting talk on the transition from pluripotency to lineage commitment and why two neighbouring cells can have entirely different differentiation responses. She discussed the cell adhesion molecules that determine the decision to differentiate while Berenika Plusa emphasized the importance of extending the developmental studies to other mammals (like rabbits).

The third day of the conference began with the morning session on organogenesis. Claudia Barros and Rita discussed their research on adult neural stem cells and cancer using a drosophila brain tumour model. Claudia identified new factors including a nuclear protein (HeatR1), adapter protein (Mob3) and a novel mitochondrial protease (YME1L) that are involved in tumour initiation. I was particularly interested on her single-cell transcriptomic screen approach to identify novel genes involved in tumour initiation. I followed this interest with a thorough discussion with Claudia over the lunch.

And it was yet another free time for the doctoral students to explore, as the senior attendees were busy in the general meeting of the Portuguese, Spanish and British society for Developmental biology. During the evening poster session, I used some spare time to witness and discuss what other people are doing in their labs. It was particularly interesting to meet people from Flogentec (Biotech company based in France), who have developed an automated in situ robot. It was a wonderful demonstration of the instrument, but sadly not yet optimised for performing W-ISH in planarians.

The final session of the meeting started with a talk by Andrew Oates from Francis Crick Institute, London. He discussed on genetic oscillators in the vertebrate embryo as components of the segmentation clock that give rise to backbone, ribs and muscles. And with lot of lectures on mouse and zebrafish we moved on to spiders with Allister McGregor’s talk on segmentation in Spider.

On the last day, we had talks on gene expression changes during development. Speakers included Ana Pombo who discussed on the role of polycomb complex in priming mouse ES cells. Natalia Soshnikova presented her work on the cellular heterogeneity of mouse embryonic intestinal epithelium. She reported the existence of two temporally distinct progenitor pools with a distinct molecular structure that contributes to the adult intestinal stem cell pool.

The conference finally ended with another plenary lecture by Moises Mallo who discussed on the molecular control of vertebrate body axes formation. He laid focus on Gdf11 signalling in controlling trunk to tail decision during the embryogenesis.

Overall it was a treat to listen to numerous inspiring talks with retreats in a pleasant beach resort. I would like to thank the organisers for arranging this joint meeting, and for helping me attend the meeting with funding from the “Company of Biologists” (CoB).

Intense discussions over three days culminated in a science humour during Anna Philpott’s talk.
Anna's humour

We were lucky to have experienced the bright sunny weather in Algarve but towards the end, the weather also turned gloomy, reminding me that I am coming back to UK.