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!