Conference on biological oscillators at EMBL in Heidelberg

EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, is an international institution consisting of laboratories at five sites, two in Germany, one in the UK, one in France and one in Italy. I recently attended a meeting on the theme ‘Biological Oscillators’ at the site in Heidelberg. The impressive building is in the form of a double helix. There are two spiral ramps over several stories which are linked by bridges (‘hydrogen bonds’, in German Wasserstoffbrücken). This helix provides an original setting for the poster sessions. The building is reached by ascending steep hills in the area behind the castle. I took the comfortable option of using the bus provided by the institute. This meeting had about 130 participants but I think that the capacity is much greater.

One of the most interesting talks on the first day from my point of view was by Petra Schwille from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry. She talked about the Min system which is used by bacteria to determine their plane of division. The idea is that certain proteins (whose identity is explicitly known) oscillate between the ends of the cell and that the plane of division is the nodal surface of the concentration of one of these. The speaker and her collaborators have been able to reconstitute this system in a cell-free context. A key role is played by the binding of the proteins to the cell membrane. Diffusion of bound proteins is much slower than that of proteins in solution and this situation of having two different diffusion constants in a coupled system is similar to the classical scenario known from the Turing instability. It sounds like modelling this system mathematically can be a lot of fun and that there is no lack of people interested in doing so.

There was also a ‘Keynote Lecture’ by Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo which lived up to the promise of its special title. The topic was the growth of a colony of Bacillus subtilis. (The published reference is Nature 523, 550.) In fact, to allow better control, the colony is constrained to be very thin and is contained in a microfluidic system which allows its environment to be manipulated precisely. A key observation is that the colony does not grow at a constant rate. Instead its growth rate is oscillatory. The speaker explained that this can be understood in terms of the competition between the cells near the edge of the colony and those in the centre. The colony is only provided with limited resources (glycerol, glutamate and salts). It may be asked which resource limits the growth rate. It is not the glycerol, which is the primary carbon source. Instead it is the glutamate, which is the primary source of nitrogen. An important intermediate compound in the use of glutamate is ammonium. If cells near the boundary of the colony produced ammonium it would be lost to the surroundings. Instead they use ammonium produced by the interior cells. It is the exterior cells which grow and they can deprive the inner cells of glutamate. This prevents the inner cells producing ammonium which is then lacking for the growth of the outer cells. This establishes a negative feedback loop which can be seen as the source of the oscillations in growth rate. The feasibility of this mechanism was checked using a mathematical model. The advantage of the set-up for the bacteria is that if the colony is exposed to damage from outside it can happen that only the exterior cells die and the interior cells generate a new colony. The talk also included a report on further work (Nature 527, 59) concerning the role of ion channels in biofilms. There are close analogies to the propagation of nerve signals and the processes taking place can be modelled by equations closely related to the Hodgkin-Huxley system.

I will now mention a collection of other topics at the conference which I found particularly interesting. One recurring theme was NF\kappaB. This transcription factor is known to exhibit oscillations. A key question is what their function is, if any. One of the pioneers in this area, Mike White, gave a talk at the conference. There were also a number of other people attending working on related topics. I do not want to go any deeper here since I think that this is a theme to which I might later devote a post of its own, if not more than one. I just note two points from White’s talk. One is that this substance is a kind of hub or bow-tie with a huge number of inputs and outputs. Another is that the textbook picture of the basic interactions of NF\kappaB is a serious oversimplification. Another transcription factor which came up to a comparable extent during the conference is Hes1, which I had never previously heard of. Jim Ferrell gave a talk about the coordination of mitosis in Xenopus eggs. These are huge cells where communication by means of diffusion would simply not be fast enough. The alternative proposed by Ferrell are trigger waves, which can travel much faster. Carl Johnson talked about mechanisms ensuring the stability of the KaiABC oscillator. He presented videos showing the binding of individual KaiA molecules to KaiC. I was was amazed that these things can be seen directly and are not limited to the cartoons to be found in biology textbooks. Other videos I found similarly impressive were those of Alexander Aulehla showing the development of early mouse embryos (segmentation clock) where it could be seen how waves of known chemical events propagating throught the tissues orchestrate the production of structures in the embryo. These pictures brought the usual type of explanations used in molecular biology to a new level of concreteness in my perception.

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