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The Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages Meeting is held every year alternating its location between Cold Spring Harbour and Madison Wisconsin. This year the meeting was held at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and lived up to its reputation as one of the premier microbiology conferences held in the United States. The ‘Phage Meeting’ brings together people from all disciplines of microbiology in an incredibly picturesque setting by Lake Mendota. The meeting is relatively unique in that graduate students, postdocs and early-career faculty members gave the majority of talks. As a result, most sessions were accompanied by lively discussions amongst the over 300 conference participants.
The most controversial and most discussed talk of the conference was presented by Hanna Engelberg-Kulka from Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School. Her lab’s research has concentrated on the mazEF toxinantitoxin system in E. coli. This system had previously been reported to cause density dependent cell death in E. coli in a manner similar to Programmed Cell Death (PCD) in higher organisms. Recently, a new molecule which has been called Extracellular Death Factor (EDF) has been identified as an essential component of the mazEF system. EDF is a symmetric linear penta-peptide consisting of four asparagines residues encircling a tryptophan residue (NNWNN). This is the first report of a cell density dependent peptide in E. coli. Additionally, this system is very different than the well characterized ‘quorum sensing’ peptides in Grampositive bacteria. The mechanism of action of EDF remains to be determined. This talk, in particular, produced a lot of insightful and spirited discussion amongst the conference participants.
The University of Madison-Wisconsin itself has a particularly strong bacteria plant pathogen presence. Many members of both Nicole Perna and Amy Charkowski’s groups were present at the meeting. These two labs have combined resources and developed some interesting research pertaining to comparative genomics as well as the molecular mechanisms required for infection in diverse plant pathogens. Using the sequenced genomes of Dickeya dadantii (formerly Erwinia chrysanthemi), Pectobacterium atrosepticum (formerly Erwinia carotovora subsp. atroseptica) and E. coli K-12, Jennefier Apodaca, a member of the Perna Lab, has attempted to determine what comprises the core set of genes necessary for plant pathogenesis. In particular, she has investigated the divergence in transcriptional response to oxygen limitation in these three species. 50 plant specific genes were identified which are regulated in both D. dadantii and P. atrosepticum but not in E. coli. Further work is now being completed to determine whether these genes can help identify novel antimicrobial targets specific to plant pathogens.
Other areas of interest for BSPP members included the presentation of a sequenced Pectobacterium carotovorum and Pectobacterium brasiliensis genomes. These two genomes are currently being annotated and compared with the previously published Pectobacterium atrosepticum genome. Particular interest is being paid to the genomics of the horizontally acquired islands in these three related bacteria and how they might contribute to both pathogenicity and host range.
One of the constant discussion topics amongst conference participants was the state of funding for basic science research in the United States and Europe. It is clear that many researchers are hoping for both great policy and funding changes in the next American administration. A similar sense of apprehension also appears to exist amongst the many European scientists as England, France and Germany enter new leadership. This conference lived up to its reputation. The discussions, talks and posters were incredibly insightful, engaging and thought provoking. The science coupled with the wonderful atmosphere in Madison and some wonderfully warm weather made this a wonderful scientific experience. The next Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages meeting will be held in Cold Spring Harbour in August 2008.
Rita Monson, University of Cambridge