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4th International Aspergillus Meeting and 24th Fungal Genetics Conference. Asilomar, California USA, March 2007
The Asilomar conference centre on the coast of California, just South of Monterey, has been the popular venue for the biennial Fungal Genetics Conferences since the inception of the series. The 24th such conference proved no exception, with the ca. 750 delegates attending being the maximum number that could be hosted at the venue, and it was necessary to turn some applicants away. The conference centre was also busy immediately before the event, with a two-day international Aspergillus meeting being held with ca. 120 attendees. And both events proved scientifically stimulating.
The earlier ‘4th International Aspergillus Meeting’ brought together scientists and industrial representatives with a wide spectrum of interests in the biology of Aspergillus species. Sessions were held on topics ranging from genetics and cell biology through to phylogenetics, genomics and industrial applications. Of particular note were ongoing findings from genomic and experimental studies of the related species A. flavus and A. oryzae, which again stressed how similar these two species are overall in terms of their genomes and extrolite production, despite one being a producer of aflatoxin and serious plant contaminant, and the other being used in production of a variety of Oriental foods (work by Jen Frisvad and the A. flavus genome consortium). A similar comparison is also now being made between the asexual opportunistic pathogenic species A. fumigatus and a less pathogenic and sexual relative Neosartorya fischeri. Natalie Fedorova from TIGR (USA) presented ongoing research attempting to separate these species on the basis of secondary metabolism gene clusters. Also noteworthy was the invited Pontecorvo lecture presented by Joan Bennett (Rutgers University, USA). This had the amusing title of “On being Aspergilluso- centric: from girl geek to fungus freak”, and was a very broad-ranging talk on Joan’s experiences as an Aspergillus researcher from a freshfaced graduate student up to her recent election to membership of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). It included entertaining accounts of the biblical origins of molds, the Pharaoh’s curse of Lord Carnarvon (pronounced in an uniquely American accent), and how the hairstyles of Aspergillus researchers evolved to resemble an aspergillum and conidiophores. Particularly poignant was the account of how certain aspergilli, together with more frequent Trichoderma species, had colonized and damaged her former home at New Orleans, which was flooded following Hurricane Katrina. Finally, the Aspergillus community united at a discussion session to call for the formation of an Aspergillus genome database similar to those available for Saccharomyces and Candida species, with a bid to be prepared to funding agencies.
The scientific program of the main Fungal Genetics Conference was assembled by Joseph Heitman (Duke University, USA) and Barbara Howlett (University of Melbourne, Australia) and was a credit to the organizers. It had a particularly wide scope, encompassing traditional topics associated with fungal genetics but also with emphasis on aspects of host-pathogen and symbiotic interactions and yeast biology, reflecting the interests of the organizers. There were also a surprisingly high number of special interest ‘break-out’ sessions, reflecting the fast moving nature of fungal genetics and the recent funding of a series of specific genome projects.
A few representative sessions are highlighted of relevance to plant pathology and general fungal biology.
Firstly, the genomes of the plant pathogenic species Botrytis cinerea and Sclerotinia sclerotiorum have recently been sequenced. These species share similar yet distinct disease biology and morphologies. An afternoon ad hoc workshop was run by the lead coordinators, Marty Dickman (USA) and Marc-Henri Lebrun (France) in which collaborators offered insights from genome analysis. Perhaps most striking was that these pathogens had few obvious features that defined them as phytopathogens; rather it was a suite of features including increased number of enzymes and signalling proteins that might suit them for this lifestyle and distinguish them from saprophytic fungi. There were also sessions held on comparative genetics of Fusarium species. It was revealed that there was surprisingly high divergence in genome size between plant pathogenic Fusarium species, with the F. graminearum genome being ca. 36 Mb in size whereas the F. oxysporum genome was approx. 60 Mb in size. Much of the difference was attributed to the presence of repeat sequences. Other genome workshops were held for Phycomyces, Nectria haematococca, Heterobasidium, Colletotrichum and Dothideomycetes. Finally genome data is now becoming available for the basidiomycete mycorrhizal fungus Laccaria laccata. Francis Martin (France) presented ongoing work from a Joint Genomes Institute funded project which had so far revealed that approx. 25% of genes were unique to Laccaria, having not been found in other basidiomycete species. Of possible importance to the mycorrhizal symbiosis was the discovery that small cysteine-rich proteins appeared to be secreted during formation of mycorrhiza, and that possible sensor proteins had been detected.
The conference finished with an invited lecture from the eminent medical mycologist June Kwon-Chung, in which she detailed her career from Asia to the USA. All she ever wanted was to return home a star, a Professor in Genetics is that such a lot to ask? But research discoveries, academic success in the USA and family life meant that such aspirations were never straightforward, a lesson for the scientific career.
Paul S. Dyer, University of Nottingham