My informal review of YEN this year is by necessity a bit rushed but, for what it is, here it is. Most reviews are very short and pithy/jealous and only exist for some of the talks where, for a combination of good and bad reasons, I paid attention (I have tried to make this review resemble my actual thoughts on the day, rather than a diplomatic diatribe of the sort I hate). I hope it is as inoffensive as it is informative, but preferably more so.
Session 1: Cell fate determination
Biology of enhancers driving Cdx2 in the very early mouse embryo. Conventional and nicely done – the kind of work that makes me feel nice. There should be more fundamental work like this.
Laura Hardwick (Cambridge)
I should confess, I read some work on Ngn2 from the Philpott lab as a postdoc working on neurogenesis in the hindbrain and its regulation by bHLH transcription factors, so this is completely biased and self-interested, but I really like this work. Laura’s talk built on an original finding (that I read about in 2011) showing how a single transcription factor could both define proliferating progenitors and drive post-mitotic differentiation in the same embryonic territory, and perhaps, even the same cell lineage. This talk outlined a very thorough suite of biochemical experiments suggesting that post-translational regulation by phosphorylation of bHLH transcription factor activity might actually be a very general mechanism that applies beyond neural tissue. Interesting stuff.
Session 2: Polarity/asymmetry
This was a really cool talk given by a very good speaker. What was really nice is that she had the grace to attribute credit elsewhere in relation to a lovely project started by someone I know, who always underestimated their work. The finding that playing around with the ECM can significantly affect the location and distribution of neural proliferation always struck me in informal pub conversations as really cool (seriously, proliferation at the basal as well as apical surface?). Add in some high end video microscopy of these progenitors in real time and this will be a very compelling phenotype. I look forward to reading about it.
Characterisation of an insertion mutation that causes an asymmetric brain defect. Turns out Wnt signalling drives asymmetric patterns of neurogenesis in the habenula (posterior forebrain). A potentially boring positional cloning project turned into something actually very interesting.
Obligatory F1000 talk at a conference. The business model is that ‘the best way to read science is to start with the opinions of a small group of people educated in the 70s/80s’. Ironically quite forward-looking though with post-publication review as standard.
‘Guest’ session: Human and mouse embryonic development
Human embryos, the Crick Institute, oodles of newspaper coverage. Everything that in this day and age counts as good science. Turns out that early human development is very different to mouse: early development is very plastic during evolution. Who knew?* Still, ended by emphasising how important understanding a diversity of animal species was (evo-devo anyone?). I am so spineless. I loved it.
This guy is awesome, though I got rather lost. Anterior visceral endoderm migration with super cool in vivo live imaging. If only I liked morphogenesis…
Sometimes speakers rather misjudge (or don’t care about) the purpose of YEN. Sometimes senior PIs get a platform that they didn’t need to publicise work that is already famous. Not here. Just right. Self-deprecating and quality in equal measure (‘in those days you didn’t need 15 Cell papers to get a job, you just went over the road and asked for one’). Just about hilariously, he also spoke about penis development (‘if you don’t have one to look at, you can ask a friend’). In all seriousness though, I feel terrible about the way that everyone seems to be, or even worse, actually is, obsessed with the way that research funders have become obsessed with translation or ‘economic impact’. It is actually sad that so many PIs pay lip service to whatever strategic priority ResearchUK (or whatever they are called) come up with next. However, Paul Martin’s work is genuinely very very impressive (this is like one of those facebook posts where an erstwhile sensible and suitably cynical friend posts about how much they love their new boyfriend/house/dog. I always write ‘vomit’. React to this as you will.): studying a fundamental biological processes of cellular behaviour (albeit behaviour of very ‘translational’ cells – macrophages) leads to super-significant insights into both wound healing and cancer, while at the same time being interesting for its own sake. A really nice combination of in vivo imaging-based phenomenology and mechanistic dissection of the underlying processes.
*anyone who has ever done any zoology.
For another view on YEN 2016, read Katherine and Vicki’s report