MCB hosts student-organized symposium on biological plasticity
Biological systems are remarkably flexible. The information encoded by a single genome can be extracted differentially to give rise to an enormous diversity of functional and morphological outcomes. Layers of regulation outside of genetic sequence confer a functional plasticity that enables organisms to respond to environmental cues and thrive in diverse conditions. In this student-organized symposium, we invite the world’s leading experts to help us unravel the plastic nature of biology and to foster an open exchange of ideas regarding how we can leverage this property to solve important social, environmental, and medical problems.
- The 2010 MCB Symposium on Bioplasticity: Flexibility Within and Beyond the Code
Approximately every two years, the MCB program hosts a student-organized symposium built upon a theme of interest to MCB students. This year’s MCB Symposium aimed to explore the concepts described above. Held on October 18 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the symposium featured six experts from around the country whose pioneering work is shaping how we think about biological plasticity.
The symposium was attended by students in and outside of the MCB program, as well as post-docs and faculty from UW, the Hutch, and other Seattle research institutions.
The first session of the day offered a view of molecular flexibility. Dr. Laura Landweber of Princeton University introduced us to a fascinating and seemingly convoluted world of gene scrambling and unscrambling strategies used by ciliates, revealing new concepts of information carrying by nucleic acids. Next, Dr. Eva Nogales from the University of California at Berkeley presented her work on the dynamic interactions of microtubules and kinetochore complexes, in which flexibility derives from the structural properties of tiny subunits of these macromolecular assemblies.
The second session explored plasticity at the level of cellular programming and development. Dr. Dennis Discher of the University of Pennsylvania shared the results of biophysics experiments revealing that the materials upon which cells grow can drive differentiation toward different cell fates—an eye-opening moment for those of us who maintain our cell culture lines in hard plastic dishes. Dr. Helen Blau of Stanford University, a pioneer in stem cell research, shared her group’s progress in a number of fascinating and interdisciplinary areas in cellular reprogramming and differentiation.
The final session of the symposium examined biological flexibility in a broader context. Dr. Michael Elowitz of the California Institute of Technology illustrated the plasticity that exists in biological systems, describing the various strategies cells might use in their genetic circuitry. Finally, Dr. Walter Fontana of Harvard University gave the most philosophical talk of the day, exploring how plasticity might relate to evolvability through his RNA sequence-to-structure model.
Throughout the day, students took advantage of opportunities to meet with the invited speakers. Many attended the catered lunch, while others chatted over coffee during the breaks or over a beer at the reception that followed the last session. Students who signed up for dinner out at Pike’s Place Market had the chance to talk with the speakers about their work, careers and lives outside of science.
For the six MCB students who spent the past year organizing the event, the effort was well worth it. “It was an extreme honor to showcase the work of scientists that we all greatly respect as true pioneers in different fields in order to elucidate the essence of biological plasticity,” said planning committee member Chris Weber.
The symposium was enjoyable for the invited speakers as well. “It was a great collection of speakers, some of which I flagged as candidates for seminars in our own corner of the woods,” said Dr. Fontana. “The theme of “plasticity” is absolutely wonderful. It is one of those vertical themes that cross-cuts distinct levels of biological organization and description. These are the most thoughtful threads, since they invite synthetic, not just analytic, thinking.”
The next MCB Symposium is tentatively planned for Spring 2012. We look forward to it!