Best Poster Awards – Metabolism Meets Epigenetics

In its first edition, the EMBO|EMBL Symposium: Metabolism Meets Epigenetics brought together 289 world-leading researchers who examined how metabolites and metabolic networks impact gene regulation, what their roles are in disease and how this opens novel therapeutic avenues.

In addition to the 21 invited speakers and 22 selected short talks, 142 posters were presented during the two poster sessions. Today we present two of the five award-winning posters decided by popular vote.

Epigenetics meets metabolism through histone acetyltransferase NAA40

PHOTO: Christina Demetriadou

Authors: Christina Demetriadou (1), Anastasia Raoukka (1), Agathi Elpidoforou  (1), Constantine Mylonas (2), Swati Parekh (2), Peter Tessarz (2), Antonis Kirmizis (1)

N-alpha-acetyltransferase 40 (NAA40) is distinct among other histone acetyltransferases (HATs) because it deposits an acetyl moiety on the alpha-amino group at the very N-terminal tip of histones H4 and H2A, instead on the lysine side chain. The biological function of this evolutionarily conserved enzyme remained unexplored for several decades because it was thought to mediate an inert modification. However, we previously showed that NAA40-mediated N-terminal acetylation of histone H4 (N-acH4) crosstalks with an adjacent arginine methylation mark to regulate yeast cellular aging in response to caloric restriction through transcriptional control of several metabolic genes. Therefore, we are currently interested in deciphering the function of human NAA40 in carcinogenesis. We recently showed that NAA40 is frequently upregulated in primary human colorectal cancer (CRC) samples. Remarkably, depletion of NAA40 and its accompanied reduction in N-acH4 blocked colon cancer cell proliferation and reduced cell survival in vitro and in xenograft models. We also found that loss of NAA40 expression or of its HAT activity markedly induce global histone methylation. Additionally, whole transcriptome analysis showed that NAA40 knockdown leads to upregulation of key enzymes involved in one-carbon metabolism. Intriguingly, silencing of methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), which links the folate to methionine cycle, rescues the induction of global histone methylation and loss of cell viability triggered by NAA40 depletion. Hence, this recent work implies that NAA40 may transcriptionally regulate vital metabolic enzymes to control the flux of carbon units into the methionine cycle influencing S-adenosylmethionine (SAM) levels and triggering epigenome reprogramming of cancer cells. Overall, our findings thus far propose that NAA40 and its associated N-acH4 are crucial epigenetic modulators in tumourigenesis and implicate these factors in rewiring cancer cell metabolism.

Poster currently not available.

(1) University of Cyprus, Cyprus
(2) Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Germany


Role of MOF acetyl transferase in mitochondrial homeostasis

PHOTO: Sukanya Guhathakurta

Authors: Sukanya Guhathakurta (1), Christoph Martensson (2), Alexander Schendzielorz (3), Bettina Warsheid (3), Thomas Becker (2), Asifa Akhtar (1)

Mitochondria lies at the centre of cellular and organismal energy homeostasis, housing a large repertoire of enzymes that are required for the synergy of various metabolic pathways. Mitochondrial gene expression and protein acetylation are two important fundamental processes situated at the crossroad between mitochondrial function and metabolic status of a cell. Gene transcription in the mitochondria has been studied over several decades, but enzymatic acetylation of mitochondria proteins has stayed so far enigmatic. MOF acetyl transferase and its KANSL complex members dually localize to the nucleus and the mitochondria in mouse and human cells. The MOF-KANSL complex regulates metabolic gene transcription in the nucleus and expression of Electron Transport Chain (mtETC) components from the mtDNA, in a cell type dependent fashion. Regulation of nuclear gene transcription by MOF is well understood, however, its control of mitochondrial function remains elusive. Here, we report that loss of MOF leads to severe mitochondrial dysfunction in Mouse Embryonic Fibroblasts (MEFs), sprouting from a stalled oxidative phosphorylation. We address the mechanisms by which the enzyme maintains mitochondrial function in these cells by using a multi-omics approach. We discovered that the role of MOF-KANSL complex in the mitochondria of aerobically respiring cells could be decoupled from its regulation of steady state RNA levels, and could further be attributed to the acetylation of mitochondrial proteins. We characterize the role of acetylation on these proteins through generation of acetylated and non-acetylated mimics. Collectively our data, along with previously published works, suggests that MOF has emerged as a moderator to strike a harmony in the context of communication between the nucleus and the mitochondria. Recent progress on the project will be discussed.

(1) Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Germany
(2) Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Germany
(3) Institute for Biology II, Germany

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Using chemical biology to expand the druggable proteome

Gerard Drewes
Head of Science, GSK Cellzome, Germany

In 2020 the EMBL Resource Development team and  industry partners of the EMBL Corporate Partnership Programme will bring together academic and industrial scientists with interests in chemical biology, chemogenomic libraries, pharmacology, medicinal chemistry and bioinformatics for the EMBL Conference: Expanding the Druggable Proteome with Chemical Biology (5-7 February 2020).

We spoke to co-organiser Gerard Drewes from GSK Cellzome about how chemical biology is helping to expand the druggable proteome.

How would you define the “druggable proteome”?

This is the fraction of our >20,000 human proteins that can be functionally modulated by a drug. Drugs can be small molecules or large molecules such as therapeutic antibodies. Estimates of how many proteins are “tractable” vary widely, I think there may be around 5,000. Only a subset of these 5,000 would be “druggable” which means that modulating them with a drug will also have a therapeutic benefit.

How are advances in chemical biology helping to expand the druggable proteome?

Small molecules are still the main modality for intracellular targets. Deep pockets, typical for enzymes, are more easily tractable than shallow pockets typical for protein-protein interactions. Chemical biology has developed tools to explore different types of pockets. I am excited in particular by the potential of DNA-encoded libraries, and small fragment approaches with covalent modes of action. Some of these compounds will just be “binders” but these can be made into target degraders as PROTACs.

How can these advances help our understanding of disease biology?

If we had more chemical probes, we could use these in a standardised, controlled way to interrogate target function in cell-based models, organoids, and in some cases animal models. Yes, we have gene editing now, but that is not the same as pharmacological modulation.

We also need in vitro models that translate better to in vivo. Our old immortalised cell lines won’t do, we are going to need more work in primary cells, organoids, etc.

What are the main challenges facing scientists in this field?

Lack of standardised probe sets. Bad probe compounds, e.g. with bad selectivity, are still used and wrong conclusions drawn.

Lack of translational in vitro models.

Why is it important to bring industry and academia together to discuss this topic?

Academia brings creativity, agility, fast progress of new ideas and concepts, thinking out of the box.

Industry sometimes lacks these but knows how to develop a compound into a drug, which requires a host of technologies not readily available to academia. Also, industry requires a new generation of drug targets with better validation, and historically targets are often discovered in academia. Once a target hypothesis exists, academics and industry should ideally collaborate to figure out how to drug it.

What will be the main highlight of this conference?

I see many but still hope to be surprised!

Best Poster Awards – Precision Health

140 researchers came together recently at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, for the EMBO Workshop: Precision Health: Molecular Basis, Technology and Digital Health (13 – 16 November 2019) to present and discuss the promises and challenges of precision health and the molecular insights necessary to enable a maintenance of wellness and prevention of disease.

Out of the posters presented, 4 were awarded a poster prize based on popular vote. Here we present the poster abstracts of four of the winners.

A computational modelling approach to characterizing postprandial glucose responses in individuals
Balazs Erdos from TiFN Wageningen and MaCSBio, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, PHOTO: Balazs Erdos

Balazs Erdos (1), (2)*, Bart van Sloun (1), (2), Shauna O’Donovan (2), Michiel Adriaens (2), Natal van Riel (3), Ellen Blaak (4), Ilja Arts (2)

The large variability in the dynamic properties of the postprandial glucose response curves in individuals suggest that it is not sufficient to use average values or single time point measures of postprandial glycemia in order to characterize individuals’ glycemic control. Instead, approaches that are capable of capturing the dynamic events are necessary. In this study, we develop personalized computational models based on ordinary differential equations, to describe the glucose and insulin dynamics of individuals in response to an oral glucose tolerance test. We observed that these personalized models are capable of capturing a wide range of glucose and insulin dynamics including normal, prediabetic and type 2 diabetic responses as well as responses from intermediate states.

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(1) TiFN, Wageningen, The Netherlands, (2) Maastricht Centre for Systems Biology (MaCSBio), Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands, (3) Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, (4) Dept. of Human Biology, NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

*E-mail: balazs.erdos@maastrichtuniversity.nl


Predict nephrotoxicity associated with cisplatin-based chemotherapy in testicular cancer patients

Sara Garcia (1), Jakob Lauritsen (2), Zeyu Zhang (3), Mikkel Bandak (2), Marlene Danner Dalgaard (1), Rikke Linnemann Nielsen (1), Gedske Daugaard (2), Ramneek Gupta (1)

In industrialized countries, testicular cancer (TC) is the most common solid tumor in men between 20 and 40 years old and besides being one of the most treatable types of cancer, the long-term side-effects of chemotherapy are worrisome, since they are largely irreversible. Their severity is normally related to the total amount of chemotherapy received, which makes that an important factor to a successful treatment. The standard treatment for TC is 3 cycles of cisplatin, etoposide and bleomycin (BEP), being that the number of cycles can vary between 4-5 or more if the prognosis of the patient is intermediate or poor. Some of the late side-effects include nephrotoxicity, which can be measured by the drop in glomerular filtration rate after the patient follows chemotherapy. Materials and Methods: Integrative machine learning models were built using a dataset of 400 Danish individuals in order to identify clinical and/or genomics features and classify patients at higher risk of developing nephrotoxicity given a treatment of BEP-cycles. Results: First, only clinical features, such as age at the time of treatment, dose of cisplatin, patient’s prognosis, and number of cycles, were considered, and relevant features were selected to use in the classifier (AUC 0.66, SD 0.02). The classifier was then optimized by adding genomics markers, which helped improving the prediction (AUC 0.75, SD 0.02). Conclusions: Therefore, it is proposed a machine learning algorithm which, by helping predicting nephrotoxicity in advance, can benefit to improve chemotherapy efficacy in TC patients. These data driven models can also be applicable to other cancers, such as ovarian, bladder, and lung cancer where more elderly patients are at risk of nephrotoxicity and identification upfront will have direct clinical implications.

Poster currently not available

(1) Technical University of Denmark, Denmark, (2) Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark, (3) University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China


Loss of N-glycanase 1 alters transcriptional and translational regulation
Petra Jakob from EMBL Heidelberg, Germany, PHOTO: Petra Jakob

Petra Jakob (1), William Mueller (1), Sandra Clauder-Münster (1), Han Sun (2), Sonja Ghidelli-Disse (3), Diana Ordonez (1), Markus Boesche (3), Markus Bantscheff (3), Paul Collier (1), Bettina Haase (1), Vladimir Benes (1), Malte Paulsen (1), Peter Sehr (1), Joe Lewis (1), Gerard Drewes (3), Lars Steinmetz (1)

N-Glycanase 1 (NGLY1) deficiency is an ultra-rare, complex and devastating neuromuscular disease. Patients display multi-organ symptoms including developmental delays, movement disorders, seizures, constipation and lack of tear production. NGLY1 is a deglycosylating protein involved in the degradation of misfolded proteins retrotranslocated from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). NGLY1-deficient cells have been reported to exhibit decreased deglycosylation activity and an increased sensitivity to proteasome inhibitors. We show that the loss of NGLY1 causes substantial changes in the RNA and protein landscape of K562 cells and results in downregulation of proteasomal subunits, consistent with its processing of the transcription factor NFE2L1. We employed the CMap database to predict compounds that can modulate NGLY1 activity. Utilizing our robust K562 screening system, we demonstrate that the compound NVP-BEZ235 (Dactosilib) promotes degradation of NGLY1-dependent substrates, concurrent with increased autophagic flux, suggesting that stimulating autophagy may assist in clearing aberrant substrates during NGLY1 deficiency.

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(1) EMBL Heidelberg, Germany, (2) Stanford University, United States of America, (3) Cellzome, Germany


Data integration for prediction of weight loss in clinically controlled dietary trials

Rikke Linnemann Nielsen (1), Marianne Helenius (1), Sara Garcia (1), Henrik Munch Roager (2), Derya Aytan (3), Lea Benedicte Skov Hansen (1), Mads Vendelbo Lind (2), Josef Vogt (1), Marlene Danner Dalgaard (1), Martin I Bahl (3), Cecilia Bang Jensen (1), Rasa Muktupavela (1), Christina Warinner (4), Vincent Appel (5), Rikke Gøbel (5), Mette B Kristensen (2), Hanne Frøkjær (6), Morten H Sparholt (7), Anders F Christensen (7), Henrik Vestergaard (5), Torben Hansen (5), Karsten Kristiansen (6), Susanne Brix Pedersen (1), Thomas Nordahl Petersen (3), Lotte Lauritzen (2), Tine Rask Licht (3), Oluf Pedersen (5), Ramneek Gupta (1)

Diet is a key strategy in weight loss management. Advances in omics technologies research allow analyses of determinants of clinical interventions outcomes. We have previously reported diet-induced weight loss in non-diabetic middle-aged Danes in two clinically controlled dietary trials where the content of whole grain or gluten was changed. However, it remains elusive how predictable weight loss is at the individual level. We here classify weight loss responders and non-responders from the whole grain and gluten trials by integrating multi-omics data (host genetics, gut microbiome, urine metabolome) together with physiology and anthropometrics into random forest models. The most predictive models for weight loss included features of diet, gut microbial species and urine metabolites (ROC-AUC:0.84-0.88, model only with diet type ROC-AUC:0.62). Furthermore, we demonstrate that a model ensemble is robust to missing information of microbiome and metabolome profiles given features of physiology (including postprandial response), host genetics and transit-time (ROC-AUC:0.72).

Poster currently not available

(1) Technical University of Denmark, Denmark, (2) University of Copenhagen, National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark, (3) National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark, (4) Harvard University, United States of America, (5) The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, (6) University of Copenhagen, Denmark, (7) Bispebjerg University Hospital, Denmark


Working on your own conference poster? Then check out 10 tips to create a scientific poster people want to stop by .

Meet the Trainer – María del Mar Vivanco

PHOTO: María del Mar Vivanco

Meet María del Mar Vivanco, Team Leader at CIC bioGUNE in Bilbao, Spain. Maria is one of the organisers of the EMBO Practical Course: Techniques for Mammary Gland Research (1 – 6 March 2020).

What is your research focus?

I am interested in cancer heterogeneity, why some cells respond to therapy while others do not, thus contributing to development of resistance and metastasis. In particular, I am intrigued about the complex effects of transcription factors, which are required for normal physiology of the mammary gland and are also implicated in tumorigenesis and development of resistance to therapy in breast cancer.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

When I was young I had a variety of interests – psychology, physics, art, biology… However, I was intrigued by science and anything related to DNA and its regulation. Then I did my PhD at EMBL Heidelberg (Gene Expression Programme) and discovered the opportunities in research for identifying problems, looking for solutions and the thrill of finding some of the answers…and I was hooked!

Where do you see this field heading in the future?

Despite significant progress in cancer research and clinical advances, breast cancer still is the most commonly diagnosed cancer – one in eight women will develop this disease during their lifetime – and it claims the lives of more women than any other cancer, plus men can also get breast cancer. This highlights the unmet clinical need for improved strategies for prevention, early detection and more efficient and specific treatments in order to accelerate progress and help more patients survive the disease.

One of the features that characterises breast cancer is its heterogeneity, both among patients and within each patient tumor. This heterogeneity is found at molecular, phenotypic and functional levels, complicating diagnosis and challenging approaches to therapy. Currently, huge efforts are dedicated to understanding this heterogeneity at all levels, including at single-cell resolution, which is anticipated to open new possibilities for more efficient and specific anti-cancer therapies.

How has training influenced your career? 

Doing my PhD at EMBL marked the way I envision science, and this vision was reinforced and developed further at UCSF. Science can – and SHOULD – be fun. Later on, funding struggles and the current publishing madness have somehow taken a toll on the fun element, so I just have to remind myself sometimes that science is still exciting!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

An artist.

You are one of the organisers of the EMBO Practical Course: Techniques for Mammary Gland Research (1 – 6 March 2020). What is the greatest benefit of the course for the scientific community and what could the techniques in this course be used for in the bigger picture?

Some of the techniques practiced at this course are specific for the mammary gland and thus it provides a solid base for researchers starting in this field. In addition, there is a significant emphasis on imaging and comparison of mouse and human studies, the two major systems for looking at normal physiology and cancer research that, when combined, offer great insights into this heterogeneous disease. In addition, having the opportunity to work alongside other trainees contributes to the establishment of a network that may be helpful in the future. Cancer is a very complex problem, and having collaborators with different views and expertise will be very useful in your career.

Interested in this course? Submit your application by 8 December!

Best Poster Awards – Cancer Genomics

The 4th EMBL Conference: Cancer Genomics (4 – 6 November 2019) brought together over 240 scientists in the field of cancer research to present the latest findings in cancer functional genomics, systems biology, cancer immunogenomics and epigenomics, as well as their translation and clinical impact.

123 posters were presented at the two poster sessions, out of which two were selected as the winners by popular vote. 

Infinite sites violations during tumour evolution reveal local mutational determinants

Jonas Demeulemeester is a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Insitute in UK. PHOTO: Jonas Demeulemeester

Authors: Jonas Demeulemeester (1), Stefan C. Dentro (2), Moritz Gerstung (2), Peter Van Loo (1)

The infinite sites model of molecular evolution requires that every base in the genome is mutated at most once. It is a cornerstone of (tumour) phylogenetic analysis, and is often implied when calling, phasing and interpreting variants or studying the mutational landscape as a whole. It is unclear however, whether this assumption holds in practice for bulk tumour samples. Here we provide frameworks to model and detect infinite sites violations, identifying 24,459 in total, including 6 candidate biallelic driver events, in 700 bulk tumour samples (26.3%) from the ICGC/TCGA Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project. Violations generally occur at mutational hotspots and their frequency and type can accurately be predicted from the overall mutation spectrum. In melanoma, their local sequence context evidences how not only ETS, but also NFAT-family transcription factor binding creates hotspots for UV-induced cyclobutane pyrimidine dimer formation. In colorectal adenocarcinoma, violations reveal hypermutable special cases of the trinucleotide mutational contexts identified in POLE-mutant tumours. Taken together, we reveal the infinite sites model breaks down at the bulk level for a considerable fraction of tumours. These results warrant a careful evaluation of current pipelines relying on the validity of the infinite sites assumption, especially when scaling up to larger sets of mutations and lineages in the future.

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(1) The Francis Crick Institute, United Kingdom, (2) EMBL-EBI, United Kingdom


The other award-winning poster was:

Understanding the early impact of activating PIK3CA mutation on cellular and genetic heterogeneity presented by Evelyn Lau, UCL Cancer Institute, United Kingdom


Working on your own conference poster? Then check out 10 tips to create a scientific poster people want to stop by .