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Joint International GfE/DSDB Meeting – Meeting report

Posted by , on 8 May 2024

What better place to hold a conference than a castle? Well, the 25th Conference of the German Society for Developmental Biology (GfE) was held in the historic castle of Osnabrück (see picture below) together with the Dutch Society for Developmental Biology (DSDB) and provided an excellent location to celebrate research. The four-day event brought together researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and around the world to share the latest findings and foster collaboration in the field of developmental biology, including areas such as stem cell biology, pattern formation, regeneration and disease.

The conference was held in the castle of Osnabrück.

Opened by the current president of the GfE, Prof. Kerstin Bartscherer, the meeting started with a keynote talk from Melina Schuh about the beginning of life ‘New insights into meiosis in mammalian oocytes’. After an unscheduled change to the program, due to various strikes and associated delays, and the pre-scheduled talk by Erez Raz on ‘The role of the Dead end protein in controlling the spatial organization and function of RNA molecules within zebrafish germ-cell granules’ the first two sessions ‘Stem cells and fate decisions’ gave broad overview about findings in stem cell dynamics in the plant Arabidopsis and in early mouse embryos, the specification during cardiac development and natural variation in cardiac regenerative capacity, nervous system development in Nematostella, and the skull development in the mouse. The sessions on stem cells were concluded by Jochen Wittbrodt, who gave a talk entitled ‘Towards the genetics of individuality’ using a population genetics approach to show genetic basis of quantitative cardiac phenotypes of two Japanese rice fish models. One of them has elevated heart rates associated with ventricular hypoplasia and impaired cardiac function, which may be related to loss-of-function mutations in candidate genes. For me, this was a highlight of the meeting, as it showed me once again that good research takes time.

The second day began with a special keynote lecture. 2024 is a very special year for developmental biologists: We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Spemann-Mangold experiment. Christof Niehrs paid tribute to the famous Spemann-Mangold organization experiment and emphasized the importance of this discovery for developmental biology. Accordingly, the following sessions also dealt with ‘Emergence and maintenance of patterns’. Here, we heard how plants use MAP kinase signaling for early cell polarization and the generation of cell wall patterning in the plant vasculature, the self-organization of mucociliary epithelia in Xenopus and, in four insect talks, about feedback loops in the segmentation clock of the red flour beetle, as well as branching during neuronal dendrite differentiation, a role of the ECM receptor Dystroglycan is important for the blood-testis barrier formation and my own talk about basement membrane remodeling in organ formation, all using Drosophila.

In the afternoon we continued with the session ‘When location matters’ where we looked at the role of a RhoGEF in neural crest migration, mechanisms regulating cardiomyocyte invasion of collagenous tissue during zebrafish heart regeneration, apical constriction and cell polarity in cranial neural tube closure, and a proteomics approach to identify cell polarity regulators in plants. Later, the session ‘Genetic and epigenetic control of development’ illustrated how expression patterns are precisely regulated in time, new insights into the role of Pitx2 in cardiac pacemaker development and arrhythmogenesis, a novel function of the hox gene Antennapedia during muscle development, a neuronal subtype specification of spinal projection and motoneurons by a common temporal sequence, and the epigenetic regulation of seed development and plant speciation.

The third day began with a keynote by Susana Coelho on the origin, evolution, and regulation of sexual development through an “Algal views on evo-devo of sex determination”. The following section, “Quantifying and Modeling Development,” ranges from quantifications at the subcellular level, such as the specification of founder cells in lateral root formation, Semaphorin/Plexin Signaling in Collective Cell Migration or the orientation of microtubules in dendritic pruning, to single cell-resolution with studies on lineage-specific genetic modules during cranial development, muscle stem cell heterogeneity and alterations in the thymic niche to the development of reproductive tracts and even the regulation of whole body size. The section ‘Evolutionary adaptions’ took us to a journey across the genome size and gene family expansion in the genus Hydra and the β-catenin-driven endo-mesoderm specification as a Bilateria-specific novelty, but also how leaves adapt during evolution their phenotypes and the tolerance of mouse embryos on ectopic retroviral activity.

Of course, there is one thing that should not be missing at a conference. Day two and three were supplemented with extensive poster sessions in which scientific projects were hotly debated.

In a special session, three distinct awards were granted. Michael Brand holds the laudatory speech for Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who was honoured by the GfE with the Klaus Sander Lifetime Achievement Award. In an exploration of color and pattern in the animal kingdom, she elaborated on “Animal Beauty: Function and Evolution of Biological Aesthetics. She addressed the origin and relevance of what humans find beautiful in the animal kingdom. She introduced that color patterns in the animal kingdom have important functions in communication, e.g. in mate choice, but can also develop rapidly and with high variability, which is of great importance in terms of evolution, natural and sexual selection. We know relatively well how invertebrates develop their color patterns, but much is still unknown about vertebrates. Fish are interesting models for studying the development and evolution of color patterns in animals, because they have beautiful patterns made up of a mosaic of differently colored cells in the skin. Fittingly, since this work came from the Nüsslein-Volhard lab, the second award, the PhD award of the GfE goes to Marco Podobnik. In his talk “On the Genetic Basis of Pigment Pattern Diversification in Danio Fish” addressed the question which genes contribute to patterning differences between species. The third award, the GfE Hilde-Mangold Prize 2024, an award for young scientists, went to Daniel Wehner for his work on neuroregeneration after spinal cord injury. He showed how Small leucine-rich proteoglycans inhibit CNS regeneration by altering the structural and mechanical properties of the tissue in the lesion environment. In the evening, the networking event took place at a local nightclub, providing a top destination to make new connections. The poster award winners were also announced here.

The final day was opened by the keynote talk of Anna Akhmanova. She explained how microtubule dynamics control cell polarity and migration. The meeting was completed by two sessions addressing ‘Regeneration and disease models’ with talk that use organoids to model human heart or liver development, study cardiac injuries or regeneration in marine annelids, fish heart and the fish fin. Finally, Hugo Snippert talked about genetic heterogeneity in tumors and how he is studying this in patient-derived colon cancer organoids on the single-cell level.

The joint GfE/DSDB 2024 meeting was an absolute highlight for me. It always reminds me that the development of organisms is what interests me most in biology, and I strongly believe that developmental biology is the foundation for understanding human disease. I was lucky enough to attend the GfE meeting as a student and to have given a talk now as Postdoc is still incredible to me. I’m already looking forward to the 2026 GfE meeting in Potsdam.

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