Four (or five) months of works and a pandemic

written by Alexandre Robert, Facility Manager and Health & Safety Officer at EMBL Barcelona

December 2019. We started hearing the news about the beginning of an outbreak caused by a new strain of the Coronavirus, in this case in Wuhan, China. First thing that comes into my mind are those images of a similar infection in 2002-2004 that affected 10.000 people worldwide (SARS-CoV outbreak). But the world kept moving at that time, so we did the same this time.

At EMBL Barcelona, we were immersed in a new challenging project: to build our new Biosafety Level 2-Tissue Culture room with a Microscope Suit next to it. Revision of lots of construction plans, meetings with different constructing companies, negotiations, quotes… no one had the smallest idea on what was coming into our lives.

Image of the original room, with some furniture dismantled.

March 2020. The new strain of Coronavirus (now called SARS-CoV2 or COVID-19) started to arrive to Europe.

Oh wait! Maybe this is getting serious! I remember buying my first medical masks at that time. Pharmacies were having shortage on stock, so I managed to buy only four. Some of my friends were telling me I was panicking. Maybe… two weeks later the Spanish Government decreed the State of Emergency and we were locked down at home. We quickly learnt how to manage to survive inside our (tiny) homes, counting up the number of positive cases, feeling sorrow for the increasing number of casualties, intensive care units being collapsed, queues in front of the supermarkets, visiting tones of pharmacies trying to get a single face mask…

The whole world was in pause mode, and all the matters related to the construction of our new Tissue Culture room, had to be dealt by videoconference and by email.

May 2020. After two months of lockdown, the situation improved a bit and some of us were allowed to come back to the lab. Those days we were still impressed by what we were going through, most of us never had suffered a global pandemic. But we had  to carry on: an Organoid and Tissue Engineering Site as EMBL Barcelona required a bigger space to perform BSL2 cell cultures.

June 29th 2020: the official day for the kick-off of the construction. In front of us, a big challenge… the endeavour of the biggest construction we had in our site since the establishment of EMBL Barcelona within the PRBB. We had to turn a BSL1 laboratory into a BSL2 space with higher standards. And this construction had to occur in the middle of the biggest pandemic the world had to face in the last 100 years. Works proceed at a good pace in July. Incredibly enough, we had no positive cases in the Unit or within the construction companies. But things went awry soon.

The works started with extreme health and safety measures

Summer of 2020:  brought a new increase of positive cases in the country, and we had our first positive cases at EMBL Barcelona, not only among our staff, but also among the different companies doing the works. The pandemic, together with other factors, delayed considerably the end of the works. At this stage, we were the only institute at PRBB doing refurbishments, and we just realised that it wouldn’t be so easy to go ahead.

At that time, I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my Facility Management side was telling me that we had to finish the works as soon as possible, but as a Health & Safety Officer, I was a bit worried…

October 2020. The works entered into the most critical part. An improvement in the pandemic situation allowed many people to come to work onsite. At the same time, we had to connect the new Tissue Culture room to the main supplies. This translated into a crazy period in which we had to schedule electricity and gases general cuts and schedule experiments that could not be done during the hardest time of the pandemic.

Slowly, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel…

Luckily, everyone at EMBL Barcelona showed a lot of patience at that time. Gradually, the new space was getting its final shape and it was getting full of the brand-new equipment for the new space (biosafety cabinets, cell incubators…). And finally… in November 27th 2020, four (and a half, or even five) months after its initiation, we did the inauguration of the new Tissue Culture room with its microscope room next to it.

We proudly present our new cell culture room!

March 2022. Four waves of the COVID-19 pandemic later, one may take a quick look back at that period and experience mixed feelings. We managed to go ahead with our biggest refurbishment at EMBL Barcelona during difficult times but at the same time, many people, all over the world, struggled against a microscopic agent that no one could see (like a hidden enemy) and some of them could not even defeat it. Many people thought that humankind would undergo a renaissance process that would make the world a better place to live, but unfortunately, that dream has not come into reality… while our new Tissue Culture room did.

Alexandre Robert, Facility Manager and Health and Safety Officer, managed the refurbishment of EMBL Barcelona’s Tissue and Cell Culture Room

Cautiously and optimistically returning to the bench

By Kristina Haase, Group Leader at EMBL Barcelona

After three long months under one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, we are finally returning to our lab at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB). Although ‘we’ is not everyone – so far  only those who cannot carry out their work from home, like wet lab scientists, and those maintaining essential facilities have been allowed to return.

We have all been waiting in anticipation for the COVID-19 cases to drop and for life to return to a ‘new normal’. Finally, in Barcelona, things begin to appear that way now – the beach is open, patios are full, and shops allow customers inside – of course with strict distancing measures in place.

This new distanced reality is what we also face in the lab. What used to be the place of many face-to-face meetings for scientific and casual discussions, has now been reduced to mostly manual labour. It is a quietened hum that fills the halls in our corridors – in addition to the clatter of machines and pipetting. These sounds are, however, music to my ears, since it can be equated to doing experimental work. Before the lockdown, our new lab was just starting to gain momentum, and we are all eager to get back to where we left off. Our experiments have slowly begun, and already some have failed – but I must admit that I had even missed this while working at home.

While going back to the lab is exciting, we also have to think carefully about safety. Through extensive and careful planning, we ensure staff members and their families’ safety is not compromised. Our partial re-opening is in line with national guidelines, and so only those with tasks that cannot be performed from home are allowed to come to the lab. With a lot more careful planning than before, and the addition of new room-booking calendars, we work in a dance-like manner to avoid close interactions with one another. Despite these changes, I count us amongst the extremely lucky ones: not only can we continue to do our work, but we also have great colleagues that continue to inspire each other (even if only virtually at the moment).

This pandemic has taught us to adapt to strange, challenging and curious situations. Hopefully, this state has opened people’s eyes to acting as global citizens more than ever before. Personally, I want to thank and support our healthcare workers, without whom this new normality would not be a possibility. And to our fellow scientists who are working tirelessly to find a vaccine, we support you, as governments around the world should too – our lives depend on it.

Here in Barcelona, I hope we can enjoy the summer – without letting the sun cloud our judgment.

Kristina Haase – Group Leader at EMBL Barcelona

The taste of EMBL Barcelona: a journey around the world

By Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz – Postdoc at Sharpe Group

Barcelona is a hotbed of food culture incorporating both local and international cuisine as well as restaurants run by world-famous chefs. The Mediterranean attitude is a core aspect of life in the region and no more so than when it comes to food, where mealtimes are often an experience shared with friends, family and colleagues. Meanwhile it is no secret that the staff at EMBL Barcelona enjoy sharing our respective cultures through our love of food! After a couple of weeks isolated from each other, we were itching to break the routine a little; enter EMBL Barcelona’s “master chef”.

Organised primarily by Casandra and Gopi, two of our Staff Association representatives, the aim of the “master chef” sessions was to produce a calendar of one dish every week that could be cooked within an hour (more or less) during a collaborative online virtual cooking session. Staff would share easy and tasty recipes, each “master chef” proposing the recipe would cook it live, and participants could follow along or cook later after the recipe had been demonstrated. Ideally aiming for quick, straightforward recipes, using ingredients found in our store cupboards, we embarked on a world tour…

We began our journey in Mexico, with our first week’s class bringing us the lively flavours of fish tacos with fresh pico de gallo and chipotle. During our second week, we moved East into the earthy and spicy flavours of traditional Indian home-cooked meals: coconut and sesame beans, and Dal, with rice.

Some of the ingredients to prepare Dal (Photo by Gopi Shah)
Dal with rice and sesame beans (Photo by Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz)

The third week had us gently returning to Europe via an authentic Neapolitan pizza recipe (the dough made by hand and fermented overnight for extra flavour), and finally landing back in Catalonia with croquetas and escalivada (a dish of roasted aubergines and sweet peppers seasoned with olive oil), just in time to expand the sessions out to the whole of the EMBL community for Mental Health Awareness week.

A classic dinner in Catalonia: croquetas, escalivada and other tapas (Photo by Violeta Beltran)

Food is culture, and there is a strong connection between these two facets of our lives. We use food as a means of celebrating our cultures and traditions, and communicating these aspects of our heritage with each other. Here at EMBL Barcelona we have had a long tradition of bringing sweets and treats into the office, as well as sharing food at cultural events organised by the staff and our Staff Association representatives (including the Indian festival of Holi and Mexican Día de los Muertos).

Altar at EMBL Barcelona to celebrate Día de los Muertos

There is a wonderful physicality in the process of cooking; it engages all of our senses from of course the obvious – smell, taste – through to a visual appeal in the presentation of a dish. Flavours, and in particular our sense of smell, can transport us to a different time or place, even eliciting memories of times gone by shared with friends and family enjoying delicious dishes: from the soup that warms our hearts during cold seasons, to fruits during festivals (for me, the aromatic citrus smell of clementines and oranges is evocative of Christmas time with my parents). The crunch of crispy bread, the feeling of food in your mouth as you eat, or the heat of a spicy dish, but also the direct physical engagement in cooking – chopping, mixing, stirring, kneading – all contribute to our experience of cuisine, potentially even releasing stress and relaxing the mind and body.

In this respect the sessions have been a success, bringing us together while freshening up our repertoire of recipes. I have been really inspired by the variety of dishes produced by everyone! For each dish, every participant created their own interpretation, a testament to their skill; in my case a testament to the resilience of the recipes to abuse! I have been surprised and delighted with the many different dishes and flavours I have been able to create, in many cases only with simple ingredients that were already in my kitchen. We have had a full spectrum of volunteer chefs presenting from across our staff, from predocs through to a head-of-unit. Traditionally cooking is a fantastic way to cross generational boundaries and pass down our culture: as the lockdown has drawn on, it has become increasingly challenging to keep our children occupied and from that perspective it has been wonderful to see some of our youngest sous-chefs joining in the action every week! The recipes have led to discussions ranging from animal-free alternative ingredients, to where we can shop for exotic ingredients locally once we are released back into the world.

The new generation of gourmets (Photo by Violeta Beltran)

So far the only real downside has been that we can only taste each other’s dishes “with our eyes”. Hopefully we will be out of our quarantine here in short order, and once again distributing samples of our latest edible experiments throughout the office… In the meantime we will continue to enjoy the shared experience of cooking our favourite recipes together, albeit online!

Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz – Postdoc at Sharpe Group

COVID-19: Halt and catch fire

By Maria Bernabeu, Group Leader at EMBL Barcelona

On March 13th, just around my group’s 6-month anniversary, the COVID-19 outbreak brought work in our new lab to a screeching halt. After months of purchasing and slowly building up the lab with stocks of supplies and equipment, and the first crucial experiments excitedly underway, everything was put on hold. Even prospective new members now stand in the shadows waiting for an indeterminate period to hear some concrete news.

First malaria samples received at Maria Bernabeu’s lab at the beginning of March

Stopping our experiments was especially hard and difficult, even though we knew it was the right decision. Our lab works in malaria, an infectious disease estimated to kill one child every minute. This disease also has a profound impact on families, local health systems and economies. So, we truly appreciate how our “small” efforts in social distancing can have a meaningful effect and protect the community at large.

As in Italy, we are also experiencing strict lockdowns. We only exit from our homes for obtaining basic needs – and even this is unsettling, as we enter one by one. The bustling Barcelona landscape has dramatically changed and the once crowded streets are now deserted. I walked by the Sagrada Familia on my return home to find it completely empty!

After 2 weeks of working at home, the adrenaline of the first days has finally cooled down and we are starting to experience our new reality. We are all going through good and bad moments. Sometimes I feel frustrated about not being able to work in the lab, and sometimes I wish we could contribute more directly to help the local hospitals.

To cheer us up and not feel isolated, we are continuing our regular coffee meetings through Zoom. Anybody from EMBL Barcelona that wants to say “Hi” can join the call. We are also keeping our regular lab meetings, journal clubs and unit meetings. As a small lab, in a small but growing unit, it is encouraging to stay in touch and feel the support of everyone unit-wide.

EMBL Barcelona Unit meeting from home

And what are we doing now in the lab? With our ongoing and exciting 2020 experiments now at a standstill, we are now focusing on writing a few projects and paperwork that was until now left undone. We are taking this opportunity to catch up on that. Unfortunately, we do not have data to crunch or simulations yet to run since we barely got off the ground! But, as we already have many ideas, I’m also taking this time to think about future lab structure and strategies to effectively accomplish our dreams.

We have no idea when we will be back in the lab, but we are really expecting that on that day, we will all come back stronger, with more energy and determination for achieving our scientific goals.

Maria Bernabeu

EMBL-IBEC Winter Conference: a collaborative post by EMBL Barcelona scientists

The basics

by Heura Cardona, Research Technician at Sharpe Group

From 10th to 12th of February took place the first international IBEC-EMBL Winter Conference: Engineering multicellular systems. It gathered scientists from all over the world and it was hosted at the emblematic Antoni Gaudí’s building, La Pedrera. The organizing committee consisted of Xavier Trepat, Nuria Montserrat and Josep Samitier from IBEC and James Sharpe, Miki Ebisuya and Vikas Trivedi from EMBL Barcelona.

During those two days, the meeting joined remarkable international scientists from the fields of stem cell biology, mechanobiology, organoids, 3D bioprinting techniques, in vitro vascular systems and organ-on-chip-assays. To cite some, we had the pleasure to hear Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Roger D. Kamm, Alfonso Martínez Arias, Hongxia Fu, Josef Penninger, Matthias Lütolf, Arthur D. Lander and Wei Sun among many others.

The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, opened the conference highlighting the importance of fostering science and ethics in the city.

The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, opening the conference

The increase of novel techniques in science such as 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering makes indispensable engineers and biologists to work together in order to create disease models and move from 2D to 3D biological systems.

#EIWC20 was the hashtag used in Twitter to follow the conference and had more than 150 Tweets.

Ethics at the #EIWC20

by Sean Dwyer, Predoc at Bernabeu Group

My group leader, Maria Bernabeu (a Barcelona native) opened the scientific discussion with an exciting example of how engineered multicellular systems represent a new frontier in how we model complex diseases like cerebral malaria. What followed over the three days was an impressive list of speakers from the world’s leading institutions. There were particularly big names from the fields of synthetic and developmental biology, however the impressive work happening in Barcelona took centerstage. It was great to see such a strong representation from EMBL Barcelona among the speakers, including Tina, Guillermo, and Xavi (who didn’t even need a microphone!).

Maria Bernabeu during her presentation

Of the visiting speakers, one presentation very obviously stood out due to its unique topic. Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist, gave a refreshing talk about the importance of socially responsible research in bioengineering. As a society, we are trying to grapple with our environmental footprint but often overlook the ways we can make our research more sustainable and ethical. Insoo discussed new initiatives taken by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to better define guidelines which ensure responsible research when engineering human tissues. While we continue to make great strides in how we model and recapitulate human systems, he encouraged us to take the opportunity to collaborate with ethicists and critically consider the impact of our work as well as its public perception.

First time speaker

by Guillermo Martínez, Predoc at Ebisuya Group

I had some mixed feelings when I saw my talk was selected for a short talk at the EMBL-IBEC Winter Conference. On one hand, it was a great opportunity to get useful feedback and get to know people interested in the same field I work on. But on the other hand, it was the first time I would give a short talk on a conference and I was going to be sharing stage with prominent researchers from the field! Also, this meant I had to manage to explain my project in a clear way in less than 12 minutes!

Many rehearsals later, the day finally arrived, and it was then when I discovered there was a short talk also about tissue folding just before mine! What if the same results I had were going to be presented just some minutes before my talk? After some moments of stress, I finally saw our projects had a very different approach and didn’t overlap, so I felt relieved and I could relax a bit to get ready for my talk.

Guillermo Martínez during his talk at EIWC20

In the end, it was a very positive experience! The time I spent preparing it helped me think what were the truly important results and which parts still needed some more work before being presented. Moreover, the ambience of the event was great! I got very interesting feedback, met new people and everybody was very kind to me. It is very encouraging to see that a welcoming (while still critical and constructive) community is being created here!

There’s no one way to construct or analyse multicellular systems

by Jia Le Lim, Predoc at Trivedi Group

It was my first day back at EMBL Barcelona as a PhD student and what better way to kick-start my predoctoral project than with a conference, which centred on the theme of engineering multicellular systems.

Though the presentations were fascinating and awe-inspiring, I have always personally preferred poster sessions, where one could walk around and admire beautiful images while getting to know people from labs from all over the world as well as have discussions on very varied topics.

Poster Session at EIWC20

I enjoyed, in particular, the poster sessions of this conference, as they highlighted how researchers, specialising in different fields, typically have very diverse perspectives and approaches to conducting the same experiment.

For example, when constructing multicellular systems, instead of using moulds to spatially confine cells to certain regions, Tiziano Serra, from AO Research Institute Davos, Switzerland, uses sound to spatially localise cells. On the other hand, instead of adding proteins to cell culture solutions, Simone de Jong from Eindhoven University of Technology experimented with supramolecular biomaterials to induce increased Notch signalling in cells.

Meanwhile, others focused on how self-organisation of cells naturally occur in nature. Akshada Khadpekar, from the Indian Institute of Technology, looked at how cells form patterns when grown on inhomogeneous substrates while Shayan Shamipour from IST Austria created a model to look at how actin dynamics drive cytoplasm and yolk segregation in early zebrafish embryos. At the same time, Akanksha Jain from ETH-Zurich studies the self-patterning of cerebral organoids with the use of long-term live imaging and image analysis techniques.

Antoni Gaudi drew inspiration from nature and created La Pedrera, a building with structural forms resembling those found in our green surroundings, thereby combining nature and architecture. Similarly, I believe that by gathering researchers of different backgrounds with similar aims and objectives, we can combine all of the varied but complementary approaches to better understand naturally-occurring self-organising patterns.

There is, after all, no one way to construct or analyse multicellular systems.

Group Photo of the conference ©IBEC

Sparkling Scientific Ideas, Lovely People and Food – EDBC 2019

By June, Predoctoral Fellow at Sharpe Lab:

How to combine sparkling scientific ideas, lovely people and food? Throw a conference in Alicante. The European Developmental Biology Congress 2019 was exactly that.

Six of us from EMBL Barcelona overcame a long journey consisting of cancelled train and a delayed flight, right in time for the first plenary lecture given by Nipam Patel (Woodshole, USA), on Hox conservation and butterfly patterns.

EMBL suffering through the longest queue in Sants station

The conference overall addressed exciting biological questions, such as:

How are the cell identity/fate determined and regulated? How do individuals cells ‘know’ their organ shape? How do biological patterns regenerate in robust manner?

To the first question, Meryem Baghdadi (Institute Pasteur, France) suggested that quiescent stem cells, which are the cells that no longer stay in the cell cycle, is not a ‘passive’ state but maintaining its own niche through Notch-regulated microRNAs.

To the second question, James Sharpe (Head of EMBL Barcelona 🙌) discussed how convergent extension, the concept that involves both cell migration and cell intercalation, elegantly explains the shape of the limb bud.

Yonatan Stelzer (Weizmann institute, Israel) presented exciting single-cell RNA sequencing methodology, which incorporates fine spatial and temporal information during gastrulation stage. The team achieved high temporal resolution by assigning individual embryos with molecular indexes, followed by cell type & transcriptional similarity analyses.

The highlight of the session came when James Cotterell, a postdoc of the Sharpe Lab, gave a short talk under the title of “Endogenous CRISPR arrays for scalable whole organism lineage tracing”.

James Cotterell, during his talk on CRISPR

And the poster session followed – EMBL had six posters: Four from Sharpe lab, One from Ebisuya lab and one from Trivedi lab.

Some of us found a time for a tiny excursion to the heart of the city, as you could see from the refreshing view from Castell de la Santa Barbara.

The last night of the conference was accompanied by the Michelin star winning-chef’s vegetarian Paella – as keen EMBLers, we were able to get a special photo with her, and a few signed bottles of the finest quality olive oil. I’ll open one when I want to revisit the memories of Alicante!


New beginnings: Scary adventures that end up being the best decision you made

A day to remember

On a not so particularly special Wednesday in December of 2017, I received a little email from EMBL confirming that I had been accepted for the position of Purchase and Budget Officer, needless to say from that moment onwards it became special as this meant a complete change in my life. What this meant was packing up and leaving my town, my country, starting all over from zero in a different country, city and culture and a completely different field of work. As exciting as it sounded, I admit it was equally scary.

After reading and re-reading the email and telling my family and rejoicing…..came the questions: “what now?”, “what am I doing?”, “is this the right thing for me?”, “what if I don’t fit in?”, “what if the city is too much?” To be very honest it was like that the rest of the month, going from the excitement of starting something new to the fear of the exact same thing. Luckily, it got a lot easier and smoother once I started talking to my future admin colleagues asking for help and tips on accommodation and life in Barcelona so I got to relax a bit.

But then…..

My first days and first contacts with Barcelona and EMBL

I remember it was a raining and slightly cold February day when I arrived to Barcelona, and I was trying to get to two oversized bags (that later turned into 4) to get to my temporary accommodation. What an adventure that was. From that moment on, I had 2 months to learn how the real estate market works in Barcelona, find a place I liked and could afford and move….

It all sounds easy, straightforward and organized right? Well…..not so much so in a very dynamic city as Barcelona. Here I found that even if you´re not convinced by the flat, but you kinda like it, you should either way scream “I´ll take it”, “hit” the real estate agency with piles of documents attesting your capacity to afford the place, because then… if not it gets taken by someone else.

Stressful? Yes, very much so, but I like to look at the positive side of things and so took it as a challenge to get used to the city, experience its neighbourhoods, its little streets and alleys. During the two months of real estate investigation, I got to enjoy the city, find favourite spots (where I still go to), restaurants, bars and found that Barcelona is a vibrant and alive city.

The people here also helped me feel like welcomed and included, from the colleagues at EMBL to the people I interact with everyday buying fruits and veggies to post office and neighbours.

The best thing though are the colleagues I met here who are always more than happy to show me a bit of what they’re doing, of their (simplest) experiments, lab terminology, to explain what each equipment that they need to buy is doing and why the need it. And who also, unknowing my non-existent talent for beach volleyball, have included me in the unit team which has been a blast.

Beach Volleyball Tournament 2019

A year and half of EMBL and Barcelona

Decorated Streets during Festa Major de Gracia 2019 (Grumpy Broccoli)

Well over a year passed since I first came here, I am more settled. I believe I am beginning to feel Barcelona as home.

I experienced normal flat related issues (flooding, appliances not working, electricity going out), normal lab related adventures (suppliers not delivering what we requested, not communicating when they deliver large equipment, importing bureaucracy mayhem and many more).

At work, as an admin member of staff, I very much still need guidance from my colleagues with lab related issues, but I am happy to have all of them here to ask for help, but things are going a lot more smoothly.

Outside work, I am thankful for every single day  in which I am be able to enjoy what Barcelona and Catalunya have to offer from neighbourhood parties (Festes Majors) and flower festivals (Girona) to competitions of Castellers (in Tarragona).

It has been a great journey so far and what I feel like is only lucky that I am getting to have this experience. I don´t think I fully grasped what it would mean to move to a different country with my work until I actually did it, I think I didn´t fully understand what it would be like to work for a research institution until I actually started it, but it is all worth it and even if it was very scary in the beginning it did end up to be one of the best decisions made.



Barcelona hosts the Limb Development and Regeneration Biennial

Two years have passed since last Limb meeting, which took place in Edinburgh. This year’s conference was hosted by EMBL Barcelona, located in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park. James Sharpe (EMBL Barcelona) together with Marian Ros (CSIC-SODERCAN) and Miguel Torres (CNIC) organized a four-day meeting bringing together experts in the field of Limb Development.

The conference was divided in five specialized areas (Gene Regulation, Patterning and Regeneration, Morphogenesis and Modelling, Growth and Evolution), and hosted almost fifty talks and two poster sessions (including 64 posters).

Miguel Torres and Marian Ros announcing the poster and flash talk winners

Gene Regulation

Thanks to genome editing (CRISPR/CAS9), human mutations can be introduced in mice to understand the molecular interactions that give rise to limb-related diseases such as polydactyly or Nail-Patella Syndrome (NPS). Len Pennacchio and Kerby Oberg presented their work on this topic.

Single cell transcriptomics techniques are being used to investigate cell fate determination and differentiation in a spatio-temporal fashion during limb development and regeneration.

James Sharpe, Head of EMBL Barcelona, presenting LIMB-NET project to the audience

Patterning and Regeneration

During development, diffusible signals (morphogens) are known to generate gradients that pattern cells along embryonic axes. Nevertheless, since cells from the limb are in constant rearrangement over space and time during development and regeneration, the signalling pathways coupled with morphogen interactions are not completely understood at every embryological stage. Irene Delgado (CNIC, Madrid), Malcom Logan (King’s College London, UK) and Elly Tanaka (Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, Austria) gave some insights on this topic.

Morphogenesis and Modelling

During limb development, cells are exposed to constant molecular signalling but also cell interactions, tissue rearrangements, movement and mechanics. Thanks to improved imaging techniques and computer modelling, we have a better understanding of how cells interact with each other in order to shape the limb. Highlighted talks by Paula Murphy (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland), Jerome Gros (Institute Pasteur, France) and Miquel Marin-Riera (EMBL, Spain) summarized perfectly this section.


Cell proliferation and organisation are involved in tissue growth in order to pattern and shape bigger structures such as organs and later on full organisms. How proportions are maintained during these processes is still unknown.

Hanh Nguyen (CNRS, France) talked about using imaging techniques to achieve cell linage reconstruction of pectoral fin from Zebrafish at very early stages (28 to 48 hours post fertilization), exactly when embryos grow from 2D to 3D tissues during development.

Neil Vargesson giving his talk about Thalidomide effects on vascular system

Neil Vargesson (University of Aberdeen, UK) talked about how Thalidomide, a drug used to deal with nauseas in pregnant women during 1957 that produced limb malformations (phocomedia) to new-borns,  affects limb development by avoiding the proper formation of the vascular system during limb development.


Fin to limb transition it has always been an intriguing question from an evolutionary point of view. Joost Woltering (University of Konstanz, Germany) investigates genetic markers for the anterior-posterior and proximo-distal axis of the lung fish fins, which are anatomically very different from the ray-finned fish and closer to the tetrapods.

Karen Sears talking about limb morphology and diversity in bats

Other scientists such as Karen Sears (University of California, Los Angeles) and Kimberly Cooper (University of California, San Diego) focused their research in using mammals with different limb morphologies such as bats and bipedal jerboa Jaculus jaculus to understand the regulatory changes in the genome of these species in the evolution of gene expression and limb morphology.

Poster session

The poster sessions were a success and around 20 scientists presented their research in flash talks.

Scientific atmosphere at poster sessions

Science is evolving fast thanks to new techniques and this year’s Limb meeting was at the forefront of it discussing projects related to CRISPR/Cas9, single cell transcriptomics and live imaging.


A Zebrafish Fairy Tale

(Science Communication from the very beginning) 


Mom:  Uff… that was tough! I was running to set up those fish crosses for the experiment to be able to get to the school bus stop on time to pick up my kid. I have just beaten my record, 15 minutes by bike, not bad! Sometimes it is just so difficult to distinguish between the female and male fish… especially when I’m in a hurry… Anyway, let me see if I have the dinner ready… ah, there she is! Tonight, if she doesn’t ask for Little Red Riding Hood I will explain her about my fish, she will love it. 

 Mom:  Come on Sweetheart, it’s time to go to bed.

Kid:  Mummy, first you have to explain a fairy tale!

Mom:  Why don’t you explain what you have done at school today?

Kid:  Hmmm… we went to swim. Now it’s your turn, what have you done at your school?

Mom:  I was with my fish again.

Kid:  The ones with the black and white stripes!

Mom:  Yes, the zebrafish.

Kid:  Were you playing with them?

Mom:  Actually yes, we were playing Mom and Dad. I selected couples; I put one girl and one boy into a hotel room. During all night, they will be close to each other and tomorrow morning, probably they will have babies.

Kid:  I was playing that with my friends today!

Mom:  And how many babies did you have?

Kid:  One, I was giving her baby food.

Mom:  So just imagine, those fish can have up to 200 babies!

Kid:  Wow, they must eat a lot! Do you give them food?

Mom:  It’s not me who is giving the food, but a colleague of mine. He knows a lot about what they like to eat. He gives the adults shrimps.

Kid:  Oh, I like shrimps! Do they suck their head as we do?

Mom:  Hahaha, they just eat them as a whole. And just imagine, they call this food Artemia.

Kid:  Is it Hungarian?

Mom:  I know it’s a difficult word, but it’s not Hungarian. Going back to the babies, they don’t eat shrimps on the first days! Their Moms prepare them a bag full of baby food and they eat it alone. Wait, I can show you some pictures I have done of them!

Kid:  Why are they green or red?

Mom:  Mmm… at my school we made some part of these fish fluorescent, so we can see them in the dark, just like in medusas.

Kid:  Like the star-stickers on my ceiling! When you switch of the lights, they shine!

Mom:  Yes babe, you are such a clever girl!

Kid:  Mummy, I want to have a Zebrafish at home, may I?

Mom:  Dear, we already have a cat. Besides that, these fish are not originally from here, they might not be happy in our flat. They were brought here from far away, from India, for example.

Kid:  Isn’t it where your teacher comes from?

Mom:  Yes.

Kid:  Did he bring them here?

Mom:  No. Other people brought them here.

Kid:  Mom, I want to see your fish! May I go with you tomorrow to your school? Pleeease…

Mom:  No dear, it’s impossible. Actually, you have seen several fish in your life. Do you remember when we went to the Aquarium with the grandparents? And during summer holiday when we went snorkeling? Or on the weekends when we go to the market to buy some for lunch?

Kid:  But those are dead! That lady cuts their fins off!

Mom:  Well, at my school we do that as well and they are alive.

Kid:  What?

Mom:  We just cut a tiny little piece and it grows back in 3 weeks. This is the only way to take blood from Zebrafish because they are much smaller than the ones you see at the market. Sometimes it is needed, like when you go to the doctor.

Kid:  Tomorrow I will explain all this to my friends, they will be amazed!

Mom:  That’s a good idea! You can even prepare a drawing. But for that now you should sleep and rest a bit. Close your eyes, have a nice dream! Good night!

Celebrating HOLI: A blend of cultures @EMBL Barcelona


Photo credit: Joan Gorro and Montse Coll Llado

In its nascent stage, our rapidly growing EMBL site in Barcelona consists of people from 13 different nationalities, speaking a multitude of languages. We often find ourselves curious about each other’s cultures, so we thought – what could be better than celebrating festivals together in the most authentic way?! On April 6th, 2019, we came together to celebrate the Indian festival of Holi (marking the beginning of spring) in the beautiful town of Begues, situated in the Garraf massif, south-west of Barcelona.

According to legends, Holi signifies the victory of good over evil. However, in modern times, it is a symbol of inclusiveness, friendliness, love and unbound joy.

Amidst the uncertainty of weather prediction, people joined with their families and young kids with great enthusiasm. With a mix of traditional and bollywood music, Indian food and vibrant colors, we enjoyed ourselves to the fullest! While this was a first Holi experience for most of us in the unit, in the coming years, we look forward to many such cultural events inspired by traditions across the globe!

Illustration by Aina

The festive spirit left a lasting impression on each one of us, an example is this cute drawing made by Aina (daughter of Krisztina Arató), explaining holi to her friends at school.


Video Credit: Joan Gorro and Montse Coll Llado

Thank you one and all for making it a memorable experience!

Gopi Shah
Project Manager, Mesoscopic Imaging Facility (EMBL Barcelona)