Sunday, October 02, 2011

Italian Genetics Societies in Assisi: staple foods and orphan crops via epigenomics and systems biology

Italian genetic research is in good health: this week I’m at a meeting held in the Cittadella in Assisi with about 500 people and 300 posters. The conferees reflect my own research interest with respect to species: about 80% of the work was on plants, and 80% of that work on crops, making a good start. The posters were all in English, as were the slides, but almost all the talks were in Italian, proving an unusual challenge. Nevertheless, my command of Italian is improving, and I am now fluent with Italian phrases such as “loss of function mutanti” and “next generation sequencing risultati”.
The three Genetics Societies in Italy – AGI, SIBV and SIGA – put together a programme that nicely flagged the research going on in the country with strong international-level programmes. It was great that many of the top geneticists took part in the meeting, including Roberto Tuberosa, Michele Morgante, Antonio Blanco, Giovanni Giuliano, Roberto Papa or Mariano Rocci, to name just a few from my area. Even better, many only played a supporting role to key laboratory members who showed their own dedication and hard work in their results! This was much appreciated by the strong student representation, many of whom presented their first work at this meeting with its informal and supportive ethos. Not least because of my general familiarity with the work presented and its background (making the language of presentation less of a problem for me), it was particularly valuable to hear the Italian students and post-docs focusing on their contributions to major European and international projects, whether in whole genome sequencing, annotation and functional analysis, or in crop physiology, or animal genetics. The Organizers juggled the difficulty of breadth of coverage with keeping the meeting short and focussed nicely, with plenary and mostly only two parallel sessions. Major sessions were on topical issues such as epigenetics and epigenomics, then genome plasticity, moving on to systems biology. Sadly though, despite coverage of so many crops of special importance in Italy and the involvement of the agricultural genetics society, I failed to notice substantial contributions to discussions or presentations from breeders or seed organizations, the end users of so much of the research discussed.
At a couple of recent conferences, I have helped writing a slightly more balanced report of many talks through Twitter. I’m not going to give any overview of the meeting here – the abstracts are of course helpful – but I can just point to a few pieces of work which I will certainly be discussing with my lab. Next week. It was very exciting to hear and consider the consequences of modern genetic work for the crops of particular importance in Italy: a systematic analysis of transcriptomics through three wine vintages in three different regions, all with same grape variety, Corvina, demonstrated how modern biology is addressing long-standing questions about genotype x environment interactions, agronomy and food production (Dal Santo et al.). Genes involved in transcriptome plasticity can be assigned to vineyards with different agronomic classes and plastic transcriptional drifts impacted metabolic rearrangements depending on microenvironment and growing conditions.
Several posters addressed the genetics and diversity of Tuber magnatum, the white truffle, and one was even using mitochondrial DNA fingerprinting to identify the oils in paints used by the Renaissance artists of Italy. The next area of genetics research – integrating systems – was well-covered, with A Vigilante showing network analysis approaches for identifying gene associations or functions, and understanding consequences of genome duplication.
I was really pleased to have been part of this meeting, and to have so many valuable discussions. I have a substantial list of people where I want to continue discussions – ranging from needs for cytogenetic textbooks, to systems biology, to alien gene transfer. I hope some of the discussions we had will lead to visits to my lab for periods of joint research too. Of course, the beautiful environment of the Cittadella in Assisi was ideal for the meeting. We could mediate on the impact of genetics in the shadow of St Francis and world’s finest renaissance frescoes, in a small enough venue (the conference represented nearly 15% of the total population of the town) that demanding meditation (translating words of the Cittadella website) was in the framework of informal discussions of molecular genetics.

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