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More than 950 delegates from 35 countries gathered for the 26th Fungal Genetics Conference in Asilomar, California. This glorious venue nests within a State Park in the middle of a quiet wood inhabited by deer which greet you on the way to breakfast and from this idyllic location you can see the Pacific Ocean crashing onto the sandy shoreline. The Conference Centre was designed by San Francisco-based architect Julia Morgan in 1913, originally housing the Young Women’s Christian Association Leadership camps.
The Arts and Crafts style building provided a basic but comfortable “Refuge by the Sea”. Due to the large numbers in attendance a second hall (the Chapel) was used to accommodate delegates in addition to the main Merrill hall, with a video relay between the two venues. Lunchtime workshops were followed each afternoon by a choice of of 6 or 7 themed concurrent sessions running in parallel. Evenings were taken up by poster sessions, where keen alcohol-lubricated delegates could access 680 different displays. Thirty UK based scientists at tended this conference, giving or orchestrating just over 10% of the presentations – a clear demonstration that fungal biology thrives on our small island.
There were many very interesting presentations divided into 4 plenary sessions. The session on genome evolution discussed the increase in available genome databases and how this information has identified genes involved in morphological and physiological processes. Fungal symbiosis sessions looked at effector proteins and their involvement in fungal physiology and pathogenicity. It also included biotrophic fungi and how they survive avoiding plant defence systems.
The sessions on growth and reproduction was on the different aspects of development, morphogenesis and regulation in several fungi, with emphasis on genetic regulators and biochemical signals. The last session was on regulatory networks which mentioned the use of functional genomics to understand fungal processes.
Highlights from Sarah and Paul
There were very many excellent presentations, and several caught our imagination. David Hibbett described research being undertaken by his group at Clark University and with collaborators from the US, UK, France and Spain on a saprotrophic Agaromycotina. He focussed on families of genes encoding carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZys) and oxido-reductases (OR) lying in the genomes of 30 species, with emphasis on findings in white and brown rot fungi across the taxa. Thus far, mining of 9 genomes reveals that white rot fungi are CAZyand OR-enriched relative to brown rot species. Phylogenetic analyses further reveals that lignin-degrading class II peroxidises have expanded independently in many wood rot lineages, with ancient gene duplication.
Continuing on the theme of genome evolution Sophien Kamoun (Sainsbury Lab) described work in progress which reveals uneven rates of evolution across the Phytophthora infestans genome. More specifically, he and co-workers revealed that low density and repeat rich genome regions display higher rates of copy number variation, polymorphisms and positive selection. Such loci are enriched for in planta induced effectors attesting to their role in host adaptation during genome evolution.
Pietro Spanu (Imperial College, London) discussed findings by the BluGen consortium regarding genome size expansion in the barley and other powdery mildew fungi. The relatively large genome sizes were attributed mainly to proliferation of retrotransposons, which were found to be interspersed by a relatively small complement of genes. Indeed, genes “missing” from the powdery mildew genome include those encoding particular enzymes of primary and secondary metabolism, a few CAZys and some standard transporters. Collectively, these finding attest to their redundancy in extreme obligate biotrophy. Jim Beynon (Warwick) working with many international collaborators revealed the complex interactome between oomycete effectors and their host and made thought-provokingly comments on the plant innate immune response.
There were two separate presentations on recent discoveries concerning Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), the causal agent of a devastating decl ine in amphibian numbers worldwide. Previous received wisdom was that the disease originated from the spread of an essentially clonal lineage. However, as a result of analysing the sequences of 20 Bd genomes Rhys Farner (working with Matt Fisher at Imperial College, London) argued that although most strains did appear to originate from a single expansion, that there were at least 2 independent lineages arising from European rather than African sources. In a related talk, Jason Stajich (University of California, Riverside) suggested that Bd was likely to be a diploid organism, based on genome analysis, and that there was genome expansion for genes encoding enzymes relating to cell wall degradation.
There were so many excellent presentations across the concurrent sessions and it was a real challenge to run between the themes and venues. Indeed, there were discussions over whether to hold this meeting at a different venue in the USA in future years due to the seeming ever-increase in delegate numbers. However, the meeting will continue at Asilomar for the foreseeable future. One other frustration was the surprisingly inclement weather, meaning that some delegates took extreme measures to combat the cold and wet (see page 22).
Finally, we thank the British Mycological Society (PSD, SJG) and the British Society for Plant Pathology (SJG) for providing travel grants to allow us to attend the conference.
Highlights from Neil
The conference at Asilomar started with a 6am wake up call, I said goodbye to my wife and off we went to pick up the other members of our group. This was to the surprise of an unnamed member, who was expecting us to arrive at 7am but impressively managed to get ready in under 5 minutes. After collecting everyone we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, which was fortunate, as it soon became apparent that I had not completed the online ESTA form (a visa waiver for US immigration). Off I ran, with my luggage dragging behind me, to find a computer. Panicking, I filled in the questionnaire until I got to the stage where I had to pay, but they did not accept my bank card. The stress levels rose. “Am I not going to make it? The BSPP and my boss will kill me. “ I quickly phoned my wife and explained the problem. “I asked you last night if you needed a visa” she said in an ‘I told you so’ tone. Kindly she agreed to pay and the problem was solved. I made it in time to meet up with the rest of the group and off we went to Asilomar. We arrived 25 hours later, shattered, in the dark, and quickly fell to sleep.
Kim Hammond-Kosack and I presented our work on Fusarium culmorum and F. graminearum in the Fusarium workshop. A lot was learnt about the many new Fusarium genomes and how best to handle the explosion of genomic and transcriptomic data. It was good to see how a global scientific community needs to interact and cooperate in order to enhance the area of research for the benefit of all.
In the first plenary session, for me, one message really stood out from the rest. It came from Antonis Rokas (Vanderbilt University) who introduced himself as an evolutionary biologist and jokingly stated that “I don’t regularly get to speak in a chapel” (the name of the auxiliary room where plenary lectures were also screened). He gave a talk on the birth, evolution and death of metabolic pathways in fungi and hypothesised that clusters of biosynthetic genes have arisen because the intermediate compounds in these pathways are highly toxic . Subsequently, the acquisition or loss of a cluster, in one swoop, will not result in the accumulation of harmful toxic intermediates. The plenary session concluded with a simulating talk from Martijn Rep (University of Amsterdam) on the lineage specific chromosomes from Fusarium oxysporum that are enriched in fungal effectors and contain little housekeeping function. In the afternoon I went to the comparative / functional genomics concurrent session which included laser capture microdissection coupled with RNA-seq and the bioinformatic prediction of secondary metabolite clusters. Each day concluded with the poster sessions that were particularly interactive. Never have I seen scientists of all levels so keen to chat with anyone at their posters. I believe the supply of free beer and wine helped.
The plenary session on day two was introduced as being research on the good guys (symbionts) and the bad guys (pathogens) which encouraged a lot of witty one-liners. The opening line champion was Pietro Spanu (Imperial College London) who introduced himself as studying the “chemistry of love and the consequence of not having a healthy sex life”. Pietro, who as part of a global collaboration recently sequenced the powdery mildew genome, stated his pet fungus was a “spoilt brat” and was used to a more regular food source than conference guests at Asilomar (which I must add is quite hard considering you get three, three course meals a day) and for this reason has sex only once a year.
As always, the conference ended with the banquet and a party. I remember standing watching hundreds of fungal biologist dancing away to some American classics. A colleague of mine said “Two drinks and scientist lose all their inhibitions” One drink later, there we were dancing along to Santana’s Black Magic Woman. Finishing the night dancing away with Kim Hammond- Kosack, Barbara Howlett and Louise Glass, to name a few, will be a lasting memory. I would like to thank the BSPP for giving me the opportunity to attend this memorable conference, in which I have learnt a lot and met many interesting people.
Highlights from Martin
Presentations during the main conference included the excellent talk by Regine Kahman, MPI Marburg, Germany. She presented data on a secreted chorismate mutase (CMU1) produced by the maize pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis. The fungal protein reduces salicylic acid production in maize and thus suppresses PAMP triggered plant defence responses during infection. The protein was identified in a proteomics screen for effectors in apoplastic fluid and epitopetagging revealed that the protein is taken up by infected plant cells. Gene deletion experiments convincingly showed that cmu1 mutants are reduced in virulence.
A talk of special interest to me described recent efforts to identify centromeres in filamentous fungi. The availability of artificial chromosomes would surely be a great tool to study the genetic make – up of phytopathogenic fungi? However, Michael Freitag, Oregon State University explained that although the centromeres were mapped for Neurospora crassa, little information has emerged over the past 10 years about the composition of centromeres in phytopathogenic fungi. Recent studies showed that their position varies between strains and that centromeres are epigenetically inherited. Efforts so far, to localise the centromers, in my pet fungus Fusarium graminearum were unsuccessful and one possibility is that these regions are hidden in the unassembled reads of the genomic sequence obtained by the Broad institute.
I also had the opportunity during the conference to present the project I am involved in at Rothamsted Research, UK. Our group uses 1HNMR triple fingerprinting to characterise various F. graminearum single gene deletion mutants affected in virulence towards wheat. We established a range of experimental conditions which allow separating the metabolite profiles of mutants affected in MAP kinase signalling, fungal toxin production and other functions. Linking gene information with metabolite and phenotype data promises to identify metabolites important during the plantpathogenic interaction. Such molecules could potentially be used as biomarkers. A visit to Asilomar is truly unique and I would like to thank the BSPP for providing me with financial support.
Highlights from Seuseu
The first presentation was by Dr Jeff Townsend (Yale University) on comparative transcriptomics and development of perithecia in Neurospora species, illustrating that the shift in gene expression drives the differentiation of tissues and the evolution of new morphologies in the species. An investigation by Dr Antonis Rokas (Vanderbilt University) of 100 fungal genomes on the evolution of their metabolic lifestyles identified that the genes involved in fungal metabolic pathways were often physically clustered and able to evolve independently. One presentation that was of personal interest was by Dr van Kan (Wageningen Univeristy) on the mating types in Botrytis cinerea. B. cinerea has two mating types and mating normally occur s in a heterothallic fashion. Although it is now known that some B. cinerea isolates are homothallic.
I am very thankful for the funding from BSPP which gave me the opportunity to attend the conference and present my poster. It also allowed me to discuss research with leading researchers in the field of fungal genetics. I felt privileged to meet scientists in person, especially those in my field of study. Overall, the conference was a great success in terms of information sharing, with the wonderful conference site giving those that attended the conference a great experience.
Sarah J Gurr
University of Oxford
Paul S Dyer
University of Nottingham
University of Bristol