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The FEBS-EMBO Anniversary Conference 2014


The FEBS-EMBO Anniversary Conference hosted by the French Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SFBBM) took place in Paris from 30 August to 4 September. More than 2500 scientists from over 60 countries came together to listen to six exciting days of talks from leading researchers in the life sciences and to celebrate the joint anniversaries of EMBO, FEBS and the SFBBM.


“I would like to extend a warm thank you to everyone who contributed to an outstanding anniversary meeting in Paris,” said Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO. “It was a wonderful event that reflected both the excitement and excellence of science in Europe. I am convinced that the relationships we have established between our organizations will serve us well in the years ahead.”



Credit: Virgile Delâtre


Marie-Christine Lemardeley from the Office of the Mayor of Paris opened the meeting and remarked that she was particularly looking forward to the opening lecture by Svante Pääbo and the session on transparent publishing. After welcoming remarks from EMBO, FEBS and SFBBM, Gottfried Schatz and William Whelan revealed the early histories and development of EMBO and FEBS, respectively. “EMBO is unashamedly elitist,” said Schatz. “It has never joined the mania of big science. I hope its heart will beat vigorously for years to come.” William Whelan, the first Secretary General of FEBS, has been an active participant in the activities of FEBS since it took its first steps 50 years ago. He emphasized the importance of the contributions of the FEBS journals to the development of the society as well as the crucial contributions of “Mr. FEBS” Satya Prakash Datta. Whelan first proposed a journal for the rapid communication of short reports in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology in 1967. Datta played a key role in establishing and running FEBS Letters which went on to be very successful. At the meeting, the EMBO and FEBS journals collaborated to award prizes for the best posters of the day and the winning posters were displayed in a special area of the conference.


In the opening scientific lectures, Catherine Dulac from Harvard University and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig described their latest scientific work. Dulac’s talk focused on how the mouse brain is geared for social interaction. She outlined the striking antagonistic interactions in brain systems that underlie parental care and infant-directed aggression in both male and female mice. Remarkably the mouse brain has the infrastructure to support male or female child-rearing characteristics. “Highly conserved circuits and modulatory mechanisms may exist across species and in both male and female brains to regulate parental interactions with offspring,” said Dulac. The fine line that divides the differences in mental processes in mice for what we would call good and bad parenting is striking. Dulac believes that studying these processes in mice will help reveal the complexities of human parental behavior and its susceptibility to mental illness.


Svante Pääbo’s talk focused on the origins and evolution of humans. He described what new DNA sequencing technologies have been able to reveal about the incredible geographic migration of humans over the years. “Modern humans originated in Africa and began their migration to other parts of the world almost 100 000 to 125 000 years ago,” said Pääbo. His work, which involves painstaking analysis of often scarce amounts of genetic material recovered from human bones in remote locations, has helped to build up a picture of the influence of Neanderthals on the migration of humans out of Africa, through parts of Europe and into Asia. Pääbo’s work on ancient DNA has successfully distinguished at the genetic level what makes us different from our Neanderthal cousins. His recent book “Neanderthal man: In search of lost genomes,” which comprises memoirs from his career, was recently publishedby Basic Books.


On the second day of the meeting, Thomas Stocker from the University of Bern gave a special plenary lecture on climate change. “Climate change is the biggest challenge of the century,” commented EMBO Secretary General Sir Paul Nurse in his introduction to the talk. “The consequences for the planet are huge if we do not limit it.” Stocker described how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had put together their most recent assessment entitled Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. A four-year project with input from 259 scientists and approval from governments around the world, the report documents the evidence for human influence on the world’s climate. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, say the contributors to the report, and it is extremely likely that human influence is the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. “One only has to look at the change in the energy content of the world’s oceans to see what a dramatic effect humans have had on the planet. There has been a huge change in energy content down to a depth of 2 km, almost 250 x 1021 Joules over the years 1970 to 2010. This is greater than the energy output of the world for a year.” Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. “There is no magic bullet to reduce emissions from fossil fuels,” said Stocker “but we have a choice.”


Michael Hall delivered the FEBS Sir Hans Krebs Lecture describing the discovery of TOR (target of rapamycin) and its role in signaling events for growth and metabolism. Since its discovery in 1991, around 3000 papers have been published in the scientific literature on TOR (2012 data). He went on to describe some of the applications that have arisen from this work. Research on TOR has resulted in drugs to prevent organ rejection during transplantations and new ways to treat cancer and cardiovascular disease. Rapamycin received clinical approval in 1999 for use in the prevention of organ rejection in kidney transplant patients. Torisel and Afinitor were approved in 2007 and 2009, respectively, for the treatment of advanced kidney cancer. Hall went on to present a unified model for TOR signaling in genetics and biochemistry.


Other highlights at the meeting included a plenary session on epigenetics. The session ended with talks from EMBO Members David Baulcombe, Wolf Reik and Susan Gasser. The FEBS-EMBO Anniversary Conference included 30 concurrent sessions that spanned the cell cycle, chromosome structure, cilia and disease, mitochondria and mitochondrial disease, stem cells, microbiology and synthetic biology. Four plenary sessions explored topics that included bioinformatics, genomics, epigenetics, the immune system, cell biology and systems biology.