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On excellence, serendipity and Rosetta’s comet rendezvous


Highlights from The EMBO Meeting 2015


Hosted in Birmingham this time, The EMBO Meeting featured talks from more than 80 life scientists speaking at 20 concurrent sessions and three sets of plenary lectures. Conference chairs Gillian Griffiths, Geneviève Almouzni and Jürgen Knoblich structured the themes of the concurrent sessions into five groups: cytoplasm, medicine, membrane, nucleus, and signalling.



Joan Steitz’ talk on Nuclear non-coding RNAs of viral and cellular origin inaugurated the four-day conference full of high-quality scientific presentations, networking events and career development sessions. “She is a fantastic role model and she inspired me by showing that you can have a family and do great science,” said Gillian Griffiths in her introduction to Joan Steitz’ keynote lecture on the opening evening.


Keynote lecturer Peter Walter from the University of California, San Francisco, talked on Monday morning about The serendipitous path of discovery: from protein folding to cognition on Monday morning. He explained how a small drug-like compound called ISRIB renders cells insensitive to translational inhibition. The properties of this compound are truly remarkable: ISRIB proved to be a cognitive enhancer in rodents, significantly improving their long-term memory. “Looking back at my career I can say that the path of discovery is neither linear nor predictable,” said Walter. His work on the unfolded protein response (UPR) provides a wonderful example of how serendipity can shape scientific discovery: The molecular machines that transmit information about defective protein folding and regulate appropriate gene expression programmes function in unusual, unprecedented ways.


The challenge of being an explorer was also in the centre of Matt Taylor’s special lecture on The ESA Rosetta mission. Taylor, project scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA), gave an enthusiastic talk summarising the journey of Philae to comet with the lengthy name 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Launched in 2004, the mission has been coordinated by hundreds of people. “I am a small, very tiny piece of the machine,” said the British physicist. In November 2014, Rosetta successfully deployed Philae to the surface of the comet: “From 23 km away from the comet, we dropped the lander.” The awareness of the mission amongst the general public reached a spectacular 80 per cent in some European countries at that time.


Both Louis-Jeantet Prize lectures took place on Monday, day three of the conference. Emmanuelle Charpentier gave a glimpse into the origins, mechanisms and applications of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Rudolf Zechner explained the mechanisms governing the metabolism of lipids. He showed in his lecture that the recently discovered enzyme adipose triglyceride lipase (ATGL) and its protein co-activator CGI-58 facilitate lipid catabolism in both mice and humans. He also spoke about lipolysis in cancer and cancer-associated cachexia – an uncontrolled and irreversible loss of weight in cancer patients.


In the Science Policy session on Excellence and inclusion in evaluating research Jack Stilgoe of University College London and Claudio Sunkel, professor at the University of Porto, discussed what scientific excellence really means, what type of science could be funded by governments and how investments into Research & Development translate into the economic success of a country.


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Tilmann KießlingTilmann Kießling
Head, Communications
T. + 49 160 9019 3839