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Gordon Research Seminar and Conference on DNA Topoisomerases in Biology and Medicine (July 28 – August 3, 2018): Lorena Infante Lara

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, with posts written by the organizers, or the PLOS Genetics editors who are involved.

My name is Lorena Infante Lara and I’m a rising 6th year Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University. Along with Roketa Sloan, a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, we are serving as a co-chairs for the second Gordon Research Seminar (GRS) on DNA Topoisomerases in Biology and Medicine, which will precede the associated Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on the same subject at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts (USA).

GRCs are known throughout academia as one of the top venues for productive discussion on a variety of specialized fields. These conferences are often magnets for the ‘bigwigs’ in their corresponding fields, stimulating engaged and sometimes even heated discussions. However, such environments can be quite intimidating for students and postdoctoral fellows, especially if it’s their first time attending. Cue the GRS.

Topoisomerase IIβ interacts with a double-stranded oligonucleotide in which one strand has a molecule of etoposide attached. Image credit: Infante Lara et al. (Nucleic Acids Research)

These short preludes to their corresponding GRCs are designed specifically for undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career scientists (e.g. research assistants). This more intimate environment (attendance is capped at 60) helps attendees settle into the collegiate atmosphere that is essential at GRCs, but without the pressure of being judged by the top figures in their field. An additional benefit of the GRS is its mentorship component, which features faculty in the field and focuses on career advice for their trainees. This year, our panel will be made up of GRC vice chairs Lynn Zechiedrich (Baylor College of Medicine) and Keir Neuman (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), as well as the two keynote speakers Sachin Katyal (University of Manitoba) and Nayun Kim (University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston).

Our ‘bread and butter’ and the subject of our GRS and GRC are DNA topoisomerases, ubiquitous enzymes that are present in every living being— they’re even present in some viruses. These enzymes are essential for removing knots and tangles and for regulating the supercoiling of the genetic material by creating transient single- or double-stranded breaks in the DNA. These enzymes are incredibly important and are involved in many biological processes and pathologies.


The GRS will be featuring research in three broad sections: 1) Human and Bacterial Type II Topoisomerases- Drug Interactions and Roles in Transcription, 2) Characterization of Type II Topoisomerases and Topoisomerase-Related DNA Damage, and 3) Topoisomerase I Structure and Function. Apart from our keynote speakers, all of our GRS speakers are either graduate students or postdoctoral fellows who will touch on research dealing with topoisomerase-related DNA damage, cancer, meiosis, transcription and gene expression, G4 DNA, and even the characterization of a new type of topoisomerases, type VIII topoisomerases.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Image Credit: NIAID (Flickr)

My work in the lab of Neil Osheroff focuses on human type II topoisomerases. In particular, I’m looking at the physical relationship between topoisomerase IIα and IIβ and etoposide, one of the most frequently prescribed anticancer drugs. Etoposide stabilizes the broken DNA-topoisomerase II complex (“cleavage complex”), but it does not discriminate between stabilizing cleavage complexes in cancer cells and non-cancer cells. I am using short oligonucleotides with a molecule of etoposide attached to them to induce cleavage in a sequence-specific manner in an effort to reduce the side effects of this anticancer drug.

I published my first paper on this project this past February, but I had the opportunity to present some preliminary data on it at the first GRS on DNA Topoisomerases in Biology and Medicine and the accompanying GRC in the summer of 2016. My experiences presenting at both conferences and the discussions I had with the other attendees helped me both on a personal and on a professional level, which is why I volunteered to co-chair the next iteration of the GRS. My co-chair Roketa has benefitted from attending the previous GRC as well, as she presented preliminary data at the 2014 GRC that, after receiving feedback and suggestions from the top figures in the field, she then went on to publish in PLOS Genetics.

The GRS is an incredible forum that can help trainees share their ideas and develop as scientists. It is much easier to ask a question when only other students or postdocs are present, but it is also good training for when the GRC rolls around. There is nothing like raising your hand after a faculty talk at the GRC and asking a question that gets, “That’s a great question. You must be Reviewer 2,” as a response.


As co-chairs, our goal for this GRS is to improve upon the work of the previous chairs by increasing attendance and funding (to help defray the registration and travel costs for attendees and presenters). Our numbers so far have already improved upon those of the 2016 GRS, but if you know any trainees or early career scientists in your lab or in your department who would be interested in attending, please share this with them! Applications are due by June 30:

We hope to see you or your trainees there!


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