Highlights of the Genetics Society spring meeting

14 April 2017

Interview with

Rebecca Oakey, King's College London


After three exhausting days of presentations - not to mention the conference disco - it was time to head home from the combined Genetics Society, BSBD and BSCB spring meeting. Kat Arney met up with Rebecca Oakey in the final coffee break to chat about her highlights, starting with the very first lecture of the whole meeting - a talk from Bonnie Bassler from Princeton University in the US about how cholera bacteria club together.

Rebecca - So Bonnie’s talk really focused on bacteria and their behaviour, how they group together in these biofilms which are groups of bacteria that arrange themselves in a way that stick to your gut and form an infection.

Just the way she presented that work, the visual tools that she used to show us about those bacteria was absolutely fantastic. I think what we really need to do is understand more about cholera because actually, cholera is a model organism for so many other nasty gastrointestinal infections.

Kat - What about some of the other big plenary talks? There was Bill Harris talking about his lifetime of work on the eye, the retina.

Rebecca - So Bill Harris really gave a fantastic personal but very scientific reflection on his work over the years where he started in California, moved to Cambridge, has been working basically on understanding the different cells in the retina by characterising them with all these beautiful different colours and fluorophores, we see a real visual picture of the anatomy of the retina.

Kat - What was lovely about that talk and some of the talks that gave more of an overview was seeing how techniques have changed. So starting from work done maybe 20, 30 years ago when you got really basic techniques and everything was so hard and so difficult. And now, you can label stuff with fluorescent dyes in all shades of the rainbow.

Rebecca - Yeah. The real visual pictures we saw in terms of those multicolour dyes and techniques for labelling cells is just fantastic. Starting off as a very, very simple technique. The anatomy is still the same but the way we can view it is so much more complicated and so much more informative.

Kat - One of the other strands in the conference has been something called newly tractable systems. What did we mean by that? What were you trying to achieve and what were some of the standout talks there?

Rebecca - So we’ve always in biology used models to study biological systems and some of those models are really well understood. Their genomes are sequenced, we know a lot about the genes that act in these organisms. They behave in standard ways, but actually, what we really want to do is sort of push that out and start looking at other organisms which are not as well understood, maybe don’t have all their genome sequenced, maybe don’t have any of their genome sequenced.

So we were really looking at bees and trees, honeybees, bumblebees, ash trees, oak trees, and really trying to push ahead the genetic sides of organisms that wouldn’t traditionally have been used in breeding experiment.

Kat - This is a Genetics Society joint meeting with a lot of epigenetics talks, getting towards being the Epigenetics Society!

Rebecca - Well, I'm afraid that was quite a heavy emphasis on epigenetics but that was good because they actually crossed all of the societies and there were epigenetics talks within every grouping. But I think we had some very good talks discussing the moving elements, the transposons and the genome which hop around. They interdigitated amongst all sorts of distant different disciplines, but were brought together I think by David Baulcombe’s talk which was a medal talk, the Genetics Society Medal talk, which was just fantastic as he talked about so many of these sort of movable elements in plants.

Kat - We’re on the last morning today. The pack lunches are being prepared. Everyone is slightly wrestling with their hangovers after an excellent disco last night. But were there any talks this morning that caught your eye?

Rebecca - There were two absolutely stunning talks. First of all, we’ve got a brand new DNA methyltransferase – DNMT 3C. We thought A and B were the end of the stories but we have a new enzyme, one that’s just popped out of a very, very complicated screen that wasn’t looking a tool for a methyltransferase and it just popped right out.

I think this is just the way that we need to do biology and genetics, is to actually look and see what's there rather than looking for something that we’re expecting to find there and that was an amazing talk. That was from Deborah Bourc’his’s group in the Curie Institut in Paris. It was absolutely fantastic.

Kat - So that’s a new enzyme that puts on these epigenetics marks, these kind of molecular Post-It notes on genes. That is a really big discovery.

Rebecca - It is a massive discovery and it was a beautiful science paper. I think that we really have to learn from that, that you’ve got to look at what your data tell you and not look for things in your data. It was absolutely a paradigm of making sure that when you look at complicated genetic things that you're not swayed by things you're expecting to find. It’s really good.

Secondly, Myriam Hemberger’s work on the placenta. Her take-home message is, it’s not just about the ageing oocyte. Really, your placentas age and endometrium, and all those good tissues that feed the foetus are just really, really important. The older they get, the harder it is to have an uncomplicated birth. I think in mammals, that’s really important because that relates to ageing and the things that we are encountering in our current society.

Kat - So as we approach Easter, it’s not all about the eggs.

Rebecca - It’s really not all about the eggs!

Kat - Rebecca Oakey from King’s College London and the Genetics Society. Sadly the other Genetics Society medal lecturer she mentioned, David Baulcombe - winner of the Mendel Medal - managed to escape before I could grab an interview with him. We hope to track him down for a future show to discuss his groundbreaking work on RNA interference in plants, so watch this space.


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