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!