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Chromatin and Epigenetics: From Omics to Single Cells

As part of its mission to encourage engagement within the genetics community, PLOS Genetics is sponsoring a number of conferences and meetings this year. In order to raise awareness about these conferences and the researchers who attend them we are featuring a number of these conferences on Biologue.

At the Chromatin and Epigenetics Conference, which took place in Strasbourg, France, on the 14th and 15th of October, PLOS awarded a student travel award to Paul Fields. Paul talks about his experiences at the conference, the topics discussed and the beauty of Strasbourg.

Few conferences are able to blend the beauty and history of old Europe with cutting-edge science from around the world, but that is exactly what Abcam achieved with their “Chromatin and Epigenetics: From Omics to Single Cells” meeting in Strasbourg, France.  Robert Schneider and Maria Elena Torres-Padilla put together a fantastic lineup of speakers from all over Europe and the United States, creating a very exciting meeting with highly relevant topics.  While the conference was aptly titled “From Omics to Single Cells”, it could just as easily have been called Omics AND Single Cells.  It was clear from early on that a common theme throughout the conference would be the integration of these two concepts to produce insights into the nature of chromatin and epigenetic regulation and how this contributes to cell state regulation.

The picturesque cathedral in the center of Strasbourg. Image credit: Paul Fields

I got into Strasbourg the night before the conference and was only able to see a little of the beauty of the town before the start.  I managed to sneak in some of the wonders of Strasbourg over the few days I was here, including the picturesque cathedral in the center of town.  Day one of the conference was loosely centered on the omics perspective, including a variety of new methods to identify and characterize DNA methylation and its various intermediates.  Already in the second talk of the conference Sebastian Smallwood blended the omics and the single cell, presenting a fascinating method to address single cell heterogeneity in DNA methylation using single cell bisulfite sequencing.  Another recurring theme of the first day, which would carry over into the second day, was understanding chromatin and chromosomal structures within the cell.  Both Wouter de Laat and Susan Gasser presented new insights into our understanding of the feedback between chromosomal positioning and silencing/heterochromatin using two very different systems and approaches.  The end of day one was headlined by keynote speaker John Gurdon, who presented new work into understanding why some cells resist the process of cellular reprogramming.  Along with this he demonstrated just how far and how rapidly our understanding of cellular regulation from a chromatin perspective has come.   The day finished up with a fantastic French dinner; lots of food and a surplus of wine, as well as great conversations about the topics of the day.

The conference venue: the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Strasbourg, France. Image credit: Paul Fields

Day two began, as people straggled in after a long night of dancing, with the focus shifting towards single cells.  Bas van Steensel led off the day.  He was probably one of the most cited speakers of the conference, for his pioneering work into understand nuclear lamin interactions.  He has now pushed our understanding of nuclear lamin interactions to the single cell level.  Following in the vein of creative approaches, many of the speakers across the day presented new adaptations of old methodologies to address questions at a single cell level.  As Alex van Oudenaarden said, just because you don’t think it will work, doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. His group was able to adapt TriZOL-based methods to generate single cell RNA-sequencing.  From that approach they could then try to identify rare cell types, integrating both novel sequencing methods as well as new approaches to computationally handle outliers.  One of the more humorous moments of the day was Peter Fraser’s analogy for why we need to study single cells, comparing a panel of Wayne Rooney’s various expressions to a population of cells. If averaged across, only the most defining features stand out, his ears, ignoring the intricacies of the individual moments.  Tony Kouzarides was the second keynote speaker. His long ties to both Robert Schneider and Maria Elena Torres-Padilla provided humorous introductions and his body of work has dramatically broadened our understanding of chromatin mechanisms.  Furthering the topic of taking both omics and single cell readouts to a functional level, Brad Bernstein proved an appropriate final speaker, as his work on both histone modifications and single cell analysis of transcription across cancers provides a model for how this work can be used therapeutically to treat patients.

One of the great things about getting so many fascinating speakers into one conference is it becomes easy to see how researchers continue to feed off of each other, and in turn benefit from a wide range of expertise.  Across the speakers (and also in the posters) at this conference, approaches ranged from genetic to biochemical to biophysical and everywhere in between, yet all having a similar goal to better understand the mechanisms of chromatin and epigenetics.  As the problems become more difficult it will take a host of new integrated approaches to continue to solve these questions and apply them outside of the lab.  In closing, I would like to thank Abcam and PLOS for the opportunity to experience this conference in person, and visit the beautiful city of Strasbourg.


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