ComBio 2006 Day 2

Having shed several kilos of promotional literature from day 1 plus the unused laptop, I faced day 2 of ComBio 2006 in a lighter mood.

Talks that I attended today with brief notes.

  • Mitochondrial protein import and complex assembly. This is a popular topic and one that brings back fond undergraduate biochemistry memories for me. Yes, I was a biochemist once. A very nice, clear talk by Michael Ryan covering not only mitochondrial biogenesis but some interesting analysis of related disease states.
  • We have a short break. Ambient tunes are piped over the PA system. Moon Safari by Air. I make a mental note to replay this album soon.

  • In situ cryoelectron tomography. Alright, this is just insane. Imagine growing cells on an EM grid, freezing them (no staining or fixing) and designing a way to rotate the sample to nanometre accuracy whilst exposing it to an electron beam. Having resolved the internal structure of the cell at resolutions of tens of Angstroms, you take known crystal structures of macromolecular complexes – ribosomes, proteasomes, thermosomes – and using parallel software on a cluster, map them into your EM image. Finally you process it all and reconstruct a snapshot of in situ cellular complexes – in 3 dimensions. This is cryoelectron tomography, it really works and it’s the brainchild of Wolfgang Baumeister. Start with this Science abstract.
  • Yay, a session on bioinformatics applications. We kick off with an entertaining talk by Roland Dunbrack on software development for structural biology. Some funny anecdotes on the conflict between modellers and crystallographers.
  • Next up, Gordon Smyth gives one of the clearest and most succinct talks on microarray statistics I’ve ever seen, focusing on time course experiments.
  • Rohan from IMB gives a brief talk about the Locate subcellular localisation database. Check it out folks, it’s good.
  • The last talk of the session is supposed to be about a protein folding database, but after far too much introductory material on the biochemistry of protein folding, I skip out early for lunch.
  • After lunch I realise the lack of good coffee is getting me down, so I pop out to my favourite supplier on South Bank and sit by the river a while in the sun. Two delightful fairy wrens play at my feet. I feel much better.

  • Initially, the afternoon plenary talks don’t grab me, but I eventually choose a talk on Wnt signalling pathways and regenerative medicine, by Randall Moon. It’s very interesting with lots of nice images of zebrafish tails.
  • Last session of the day and I head off to a session entitled “comparative genomics”. The first speaker discusses the use of cross-species cDNA microarrays for studying evolutionary divergence of gene regulation in primates. Not a bad talk.
  • Things take a decided turn for the worse. The next talk is entitled “reconstructing the ancestral mammal”, but turns out to be no such thing. The speaker waffles on and on for the first half of the talk about the intricacies of X chromosome inactivation. It soons becomes clear that a fragment of X chromosome sequence is about all that the Australian marsupial genomes initiative has going for it. This just confirms my prejudices that this project is a joke. It has no funding and no results of any interest (the sole output coming from a South American marsupial). Its alleged justification is better understanding of mammalian genomes, but we all know that it’s a pathetic “go Aussie genome go” project. I think over some of the excellent talks on comparative genomics that I’ve seen from overseas speakers, lament the state of Australian genomics and become angry. About 12 people have left ahead of me already so I decide to follow and skip the final talk, on environmental sequencing.

I catch the City Cat ferry down river to UQ to collect my poster for tomorrow. On the way, a ferry crewmember announces a birthday and the passengers all sing happy birthday to Lyndal. Soft evening light plays across the mangroves and the water. I feel much better.

And that’s the whole thing with scientific meetings. They’re just too intense. So my simple advice is: when science gets a bit too much just step outside, smell a flower, watch a bird, or the river, or the ocean, or the non-scientists going about their business. You know, real world stuff.