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March 15-20, 2022
The Fungal Genetics Conference is one of the leading meetings in the field of fungal genetics, taking place in the Asilomar conference grounds, Pacific grove, California, which it does, every 2 years. It is sponsored by the Genetic Society of America. This was the first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic started and in order to accommodate attendees from different countries the meeting was hybrid, which meant that participants could attend either on-line or in-person. The meeting was organised with morning Plenary sessions in common for every participant and seven afternoon sessions divided by different topics each day. The different sessions were either streamed through Zoom or registered. Three evening poster sessions were also held.
This conference allowed me to learn state of the art in fungal genetics from many points of view. Every talk I listened to, gave me the opportunity to widen my knowledge in different systems of fungal interactions. It is very difficult to just pick some of those amazing topics.
One of my favourite talks was presented by Regine Kahmann from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, whom I got the chance to meet over breakfast the first day. Regine presented us with 10 years’ worth of work on a complex formed by two membrane proteins and five unrelated effectors, in the Ustilago maydis fungal pathogen system. This complex appears to be necessary for the fungus to successfully colonise the host. Corresponding genes of the complex are co-regulated during the infection phase. The complex forms a channel that connects the fungal membrane and the host cells by connecting with the plant plasma membrane proteins, forming a canal which could be used for effector delivery into the host plant cells. Knockout studies revealed that, without one of the proteins belonging to the complex, infection was compromised. This complex seems to be conserved in smut fungi, as a result this work will allow the study of a novel fungicide that targets the complex.
Another very interesting presentation was on the topic of RNA and RNAi biology, titled ‘Extracellular vesicle-mediated cross-kingdom transport of plant mRNAs into fungal cells to suppress pathogenicity’ by Hailing Jin from the University of California. They investigated the transport of vesicles containing plant mRNA into Botrytis cinerea, which following translation, resulted in the attenuation of pathogenicity of the fungus itself. Arabidopsis knockout mutants for these transferable mRNAs were in fact more susceptible to B. cinerea infection.
This conference is a great opportunity for postgrads students and postdocs that work in the field of fungal genetics to open their horizons on new techniques, meet with peers from all over the world and make new connections. I am most grateful to BSPP for giving me the chance to attend and present my work. My poster was presented on the Friday’s poster session, under the topic of ‘Pathogenic and Mutualistic Interactions’. There I had the opportunity to share my work on the effector gene Zt-11 of Zymoseptoria tritici. Many fellow scientists approached my poster and I gained great feedback and suggestions from each one of them.
The Fungal Genetics conference was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling conference that I have participated during my PhD, thanks again to BSPP for the financial support and to the GSA organisers for the brilliant meeting.
University College Dublin
For those attending in person, the Californian sun allowed lots of outdoor mixing, with a plentiful supply of fresh air coming in from the Pacific Ocean. Many speakers were showing results from lockdown desk studies, including comparative genomics, phylogenetics and protein structural modelling, but there were also some new lab techniques, including CRISPR-Cas gene editing in a growing list of fungal species and lots of impressive microscopy.
The California coast endemic Menzies Wallflower Erysimum menziesii on Asilomar dunes
A major benefit of this meeting is always the ability to spot parallels across different fungal groups beyond plant pathogens. This year that included the evolution of effectors and formation of appressoria in entomopathogenic as well as phytopathogenic fungi; prey detection and signalling pathways in nematophagous fungi, with similarities to host sensing by plant pathogens as well as substrate sensing by saprophytes; the role of nutrient levels in colonising hosts, whether plant or animal; and my own main area of interest, the evolution of fungicide resistance in both agricultural and clinical pathogens.
Hot topics in the area of fungicides and anti-fungals included heritable epigenetic mechanisms of resistance, including RNAi-based post-transcriptional silencing of a drug target, and a possible prion-like protein-based upregulation of efflux pumps. Resistance-related topics from other areas included mutations found in fungal populations that have adapted to metal pollution in soils; and fungal auto-resistance to their own toxins, which involves efflux pumps similar to those that are over-expressed in some fungal strains that have evolved resistance to synthetic fungicides.
While I was in the Fungicides and Antifungals session, another parallel session on Emerging Threats was going on at the same time. A big advantage of the new hybrid format was being able to catch up on missed sessions, with recordings (and virtual posters) online for 30 days after the conference. This also saved me from having to decide between sessions on Plant Pathogens and Evolution. For plant pathogens, as well as studies into effectors themselves including a growing number of AlphaFold structural models, there were several eye-catching studies into their import/export from fungal to plant cells, combining genetics and bioimaging to look more closely at vesicle formation. The evolution session highlighted some of the many forms of genetic and epigenetic variation found in fungi, and mechanisms of gene movement both within and between genomes. This included mechanisms of recombination and horizontal gene transfer, and genetic elements such as extrachromosomal circular DNAs and “Starship” mobile elements, showing just how variable and adaptable fungi can be.
The Genetics Society of America’s ‘Fungal Genetics Conference’ is already well known within the BSPP community. In fact, while attending the BSPP Our Plants Our Future Conference in December 2021 many BSPP members shared their fond memories of the conference when I mentioned my intention to join in 2022. Fuelled by this and the enjoyment of OPOF, I registered for the conference the very first evening of OPOF.
Usually run every two years, this was the 31st Fungal Genetics Conference, highly anticipated following delays due to COVID-19 with the 30th conference taking place in March 2019. Members of our community were understandably excited to return. Once there you can see why. Not only is this conference the must be place for learning what is new in fungal genetics, but the location makes this conference simultaneously feel like a holiday. Held at Asilomar Conference grounds in Monterey, California; breaks between sessions are spent by the beach soaking in the sun and fresh air (pictured below). This undoubtedly sets the tone of the conference, putting everyone at ease and allowing for relaxed conversations about science whether that’s at mealtimes or during the several evening poster sessions. It is from these conversations that you garner an even deeper appreciation for the fungal genetics community where each person you speak to is more than happy to offer whatever help they can to a research problem. This was echoed in the Perkins/Metzenberg Lecture presented by Barbara Gillian Turgeon who reminisced about help received from Perkins and Metzenberg even when she felt new and unimportant in the community.
The Perkins/Metzenberg Lecture was the last of many talks in this conference, with five talks given within each morning plenary session and eight within the afternoon concurrent sessions – of which there were seven running at any given time. I defy anyone not to find something of relevance to their research over the course of the four-day conference. Plant pathologists will be pleased to know that our favourite fungal pathogens cropped up time and time again even outside of the dedicated ‘Plant pathogens’ session where topics from appressorium-mediated infection to fungal and oomycete effectors were discussed. The most captivating talk in this session for me, was that on ‘Alternative sulfur scavenging and host colonization by the plant pathogen Raffaelea lauricola’ from Joshua Konkol, who highlighted the importance of sulfur metabolism in plant pathogenicity by knocking out a gene responsible for regulating sulfur uptake and assimilation (RlmetR) and demonstrating loss of pathogenicity in Persea palustris.
Of course, the nature of concurrent sessions means you cannot possibly attend every talk of interest. At least that was the case until COVID. This conference, as many others have been, was made available for virtual attendance and though perhaps you don’t get quite the same atmosphere or networking opportunities, it did mean that sessions were recorded. As such, this year attendees were afforded an added benefit; the ability to watch recorded sessions even after the conference had ended. This meant that while at the conference I could enjoy as many talks as possible, not having to run between sessions, safe in the knowledge that if there were certain talks held at opposite sides of the conference grounds, I would be able to catch these at a later date. It also allowed me to explore topics outside of my main research area, in particular mycobiomes, a topic of interest in mainstream science media, but this conference presented the opportunity to learn from the experts themselves. In addition, outside of plant pathology, one talk of special interest was that by Reinhard Fischer on ‘Chemical interactions between fungi and nematodes’. Being a mycologist and plant pathologist, the interaction between fungi and nematodes is one that I am unfamiliar with, but perhaps this novelty added to my enjoyment. Playing a video of nematode trapping, overlaid with the classic Jaws theme song (as well as sharing some excellent work investigating trap formation) this talk instantly reminded me of how fun and innovative science can be.
I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my first international conference and am thankful to BSPP for their support which made my attendance possible.
University of Bristol
After much debate over whether to hold an in-person or solely online conference, the organisers bravely decided to go ahead with an in-person meeting. This posed significant challenges to both national and international travellers, with the need for covid testing and various medical passes to participate, and then strict masking rules for much of the conference. Fortunately the decision to go ahead was well vindicated with approximately 650 delegates attending in person, together with over 100 online attendees. Sadly, some delegates failed the pre-24 hour covid testing so could not travel and attend, and two unfortunate delegates tested covid positive during the conference and had to self-isolate in quarantine rooms booked for this purpose. Otherwise any feared covid outbreaks failed to materialise, helped by the wonderful venue with lots of open spaces in the resident State Park and adjacent beach trails with accompanying wildlife.
Wildlife in the conference grounds
The scientific programme consisted of pre-meeting satellite workshops (e.g. on Aspergillus, Fusarium and Magnaporthe) and then four solid days of sessions. There were then final poster presentations in the evening in a large underground garage. Invited chairs and speakers at all sessions had been requested to attend the conference in person, and almost all managed to fulfil the commitment although a minority of speakers had to provide pre-recorded talks or live Zoom talks due to covid disruption. There were also opportunities for pre-recorded poster viewings and interactive question sessions to avoid close contact, but for the most part the evening poster sessions were their normal sociable mix and it was noticeable that the strict masking rules were rather more relaxed in these alcohol-lubricated sessions!
There were many excellent presentations, both in the plenary and concurrent sessions. Reinhard Fisher (Karlsruhe Institute, Germany) spoke about a pet project investigating the genetics and physiology of nematode-trapping fungi, describing how the fungi under nutrient stress had evolved to sense nematode signal molecules and then produce opioid-like peptides to sedate the trapped worms. Regine Kahmann (Max Planck Institute, Germany) described a large-scale project screening 200,000 small molecule compounds that might disrupt fungal effectors and so be of use in control of fungal plant pathogens. Just four molecules were found to prove effective and one was being patented for control of rusts. Raymond St. Leger (University of Maryland, USA) gave an ever-entertaining talk on the diverse biology of Metarhizium species, including the facts that some that could aid plant growth whilst acting as insect biocontrol agents, and that some species were generalists whereas others were narrow host range. Liz Ballou (University of Exeter, UK) gave a talk about the unexpected importance of bacterial endosymbionts in the pathogenicity of Rhizopus species. David Hibbett (Clark University, USA) presented an informative and wide-ranging overview about developments in molecular phylogenetics, noting for example the arguable colonial hierarchy present in traditional taxonomy, and the threat of cultivated fungal strains escaping into the environment and breeding with native strains with unpredictable outcomes. Via a Zoom online link Hanna Johannesson presented from Uppsala University, Sweden, describing a fascinating study of annual mutation rates in fairy ring fungi, explaining that these were ideal candidates to examine for mutations as the same clone expanded outwards annually and therefore different sectors could be compared by genome sequencing. Long-lived dikaryons were found to be relatively stable compared to monokaryons more subject mutations arising from transposable elements. In my own concurrent session on ‘Fungal recognition: self and non-self’ amongst other talks Ben Auxier (Wageningen University, Netherlands) described how a clever mix of backcrossing and progeny genome sequencing and bioinformatic analysis had been used in a pioneering project to identify heterokaryon (HET) compatibility genes in a basidiomycete species, Adriana Rico Ramirez (Berkeley University of California, USA) presented a dissection of functional HET domains, Jun-ichi Maruyama (University of Tokyo, Japan) looked at strain compatibility within industrial Aspergillus oryzae strains, and Andre Fleisner (Braunschweig Technical University, Germany) described how the same conserved signalling process for hyphal fusion seemed to be shared across certain ascomycete species including fungal plant pathogens and non-pathogenic relatives.
One entertaining highlight was the award of tiaras to members of the fungal community who had been made members of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA over recent years (thanks to Michelle Momany, Georgia USA).
Fungal awardees of membership of the National Academy of Sciences, USA
The conference closed with a surprisingly emotional and touching Perkins/Metzenberg lecture from Gillian Turgeon (Cornell University, USA) who reminisced on her career and researchers she had known. The talk included an overview of research spanning several decades into the genetic complications of toxin production in plant pathogens where the underlying genetics did not fit a standard model that many like to apply, a very useful cautionary tale for scientists of all ages. Finally, I thank the BSPP, the British Mycological Society and University of Nottingham for providing travel grants to allow attendance of the conference.
Paul S Dyer
University of Nottingham