Expanding the Druggable Proteome with Chemical Biology – Best Poster Awards

The 2020 conference season at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre kicked off with the EMBL Conference: Expanding the Druggable Proteome with Chemical Biology (5 – 7 February 2020). Meet the three poster prize winners from the conference – Patrick Zanon, Enric Ros and Rens de Vries.

Identification of novel antibiotic targets using covalent inhibitors and residue-specific proteomics

PHOTO: Patrick Zanon

Authors: Patrick Zanon (1), Stephan Hacker (1)

Bacterial resistance towards all marketed antibiotics poses an imminent threat to global health. In order to overcome this antibiotic crisis, drugs with novel mechanisms-of-action are desperately needed. Covalent inhibitors are especially promising in this regard as they are already prevalent as antibiotics (e.g. β-lactams and fosfomycin), allow targeting protein pockets that are hard to address with non-covalent interactions alone and hold the promise to overcome some mechanisms of resistance development.[1] Furthermore, covalent inhibitors are uniquely suited to identify new binding pockets on proteins using residue-specific proteomics and in this way to broaden the scope of targetable protein targets.
The vast majority of covalent inhibitors so far either hijack the enzymatic activity of the protein by modification of catalytic serines and tyrosines or address cysteines through their inherent outstanding nucleophilicity. Nevertheless, the number of potentially addressable proteins in the bacterial proteome is significantly limited by the requirement for these amino acids to be present in target proteins. By developing electrophilic groups that are selective for other amino acids (e.g. lysine), we strive to expand the number of exploitable interaction sites for covalent inhibitors in the bacterial proteome. Furthermore, to assess the reactivity and selectivity of covalent inhibitors and to streamline the discovery of novel antibiotic targets, we develop new methods for residue-specific activity-based protein profiling.[2,3] In this way, we are convinced, that we will be able to make important contributions to overcome the antibiotic crisis.

References:
[1] R. A. Bauer, Drug Discov. Today 2015, 20, 1061–1073.
[2] K. M. Backus et al., Nature 2016, 534, 570.
[3] P. R. A. Zanon, L. Lewald, S. M. Hacker Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., doi: 10.1002/anie.201912075.

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(1) Technical University of Munich, Germany


Incorporating 1,2,4,5-tetrazines into proteins: A method for targeted drug release

PHOTO: Enric Ros

Authors: Enric Ros (1), Antoni Riera (1), Lluís Ribas de Pouplana (1)

Bioorthogonal reactions, namely reactions that can take place under biocompatible conditions, are having a major impact in the development of new research tools and novel therapeutic strategies. In the latter case, the discovery of the reaction commonly referred to as “click-to-release” (CtR), which triggers the liberation of a given cargo (normally a drug or a fluorophore), has led to several applications in drug delivery. This reaction happens between a 1,2,4,5-Tetrazine (Tz) fragment and certain alkenes or alkynes and, in order to achieve drug delivery specifically at the site of action, one of the two reactant counterparts should be conjugated to a biomolecule acting as a carrier, ideally a protein.
We have synthetized the previously unreported 3-bromo-1,2,4,5-tetrazine and used its excellent reactivity to attain chemoselective protein labelling onto lysines. Due to the chemical features of the formed amino-Tz. The resulting labelled lysines can undergo fast CtR reactions with trans-cyclooctenes, thereby releasing a desired cargo under physiological conditions. To showcase the applicability of this approach, we have labelled the monoclonal antibody Trastuzumab (anti-Her2) and demonstrated the specific release of the cytotoxic drug doxorubicin upon reaction in a mammalian cell culture context, resulting in a decrease in cell viability.
Additionally, we have also used 3-bromo-1,2,4,5-tetrazine to synthetize an amino-Tz containing non-natural amino acid and used it to achieve protein labelling through its genetic incorporation by amber codon suppression in Escherichia coli. The resulting site-selectively labelled proteins can also trigger fast, high yielding CtR reactions.
To summarize, we have successfully applied a new compound, 3-bromo-1,2,4,5-tetrazine, as a reagent to achieve either chemoselective or site selective protein labelling. We have applied the bioconjugated proteins to demonstrate their potential use for targeted drug delivery in a relevant cellular model, opening new therapeutically useful methodologies.

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(1) IRB Barcelona, Spain


Modulation of nuclear receptors through ligand architecture

PHOTO: Rens de Vries

Authors: Rens de Vries (1), Femke Meijer (1), Luc Brunsveld (1)

Nuclear receptors (NRs) have been one of the primary drug targets over the last decades for their ability to regulate gene expression. The traditional approach of modulating NRs is to design small synthetic molecules that interact with the ligand-binding domain (LBD) of the NR. Ligands can thereby either enhance or inhibit gene transcription. Apart from the effects on transcription, recent research shows that minor changes in the ligand scaffold can have a significant impact on the behavior of the NR. In this research, we show how small-molecules can change both the dimerization behavior of NRs and the recruitment of allosteric modulators.
The Retinoic X Receptor α (RXRα) is known as a master regulator among NRs through its ability to heterodimerize with, and thereby modulate, other NRs. We show, using a novel NanoBIT complexation assay, that small directed changes in the RXR ligand scaffold can lead to selective formation of specific hetero- and homodimers. Using our structural data and focused compound library, a model was developed to help to understand this effect of the ligand. This information can serve as a blueprint to design small-molecules that selectively target specific NRs via RXR. This makes RXR as an exciting and versatile target for NR modulation, especially when classical modulation of the partner NR is not possible.
Recently, small-molecules have been found to bind to allosteric sites of NRs. Allosteric ligands are of interest since they do not compete with the endogenous ligand of the NR and often shown an increased selectivity towards their target. We show, using X-ray crystallography and biochemical assays, that there is communication between orthosteric and allosteric ligands in the RAR-related orphan receptor γ t (RORγt). We successfully solved eleven new ternary crystal structures of RORγt in the presence of both orthosteric and allosteric ligands. These structures mechanistically show how binding of the orthosteric ligand leads to positive cooperative binding of the allosteric ligand.

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(1) Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands


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Best Poster Awards – Target Validation Using Genomics and Informatics

Meet Giovanni Spirito and Borja Gomez Ramos – the two poster prize winners at the recent EMBL – Wellcome Genome Campus Conference: Target Validation Using Genomics and Informatics (8 – 10 Dec 2019).

Identification and prioritization of candidate causal genomic variations from individuals affected by ASD

PHOTO: Giovanni Spirito

Authors: Giovanni Spirito (1), Diego Vozzi (2), Martina Servetti (3), Margherita Lerone (3), Maria Teresa Divizia (3), Giulia Rosti (3), Livia Pisciotta (4), Lino Nobili (4), Irene Serio (4), Stefano Gustincich (2), Remo Sanges (1)

Next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies enabled the extensive study of the genomics underlying human diseases. Namely whole exome sequencing (WES) represents a cost-efficient method which can lead to the detection of multiple classes of genomic variants and the discovery of novel disease-associated genes. One of the drawbacks of this approach however, is the large number of genomic variants detected in each analysis. Automated variant prioritization strategies are therefore required. This is particularly important in the case of complex disease such as ASD, whose genetic etiology is still poorly understood. To this aim we built a custom computational framework capable, from raw WES data, to automatically detect four classes of genomic variants (SNPs, indels, copy number variants and short tandem repeat variants) and prioritize them in regards to their relevance to a specific phenotype. We tested this framework on a selection of 29 trios including probands affected by severe and undiagnosed rare phenotypes and a small cohort of 10 trios all featuring healthy parents and one offspring affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We were able to successfully detect rare and de novo high penetrance variants which have been validated and confirmed as causative among the undiagnosed probands. In the specific case of the ASD cohort we could highlight several genes which are not implicated in autism susceptibility, but nevertheless whose connections to genes relevant for ASD could suggest a possible involvement in the phenotype. Furthermore, our approach enabled us to detect several instances characterized by the presence of multiple candidate variants within genes belonging to the same canonical pathway in one proband. Our workflow allows to detect and prioritize multiple classes of genomic variants in order to both highlight rare high penetrance disease-causative mutation, and possibly reconstruct the genomics at the basis of complex ASD phenotypes.

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(1) SISSA, Italy, (2) IIT, Italy, (3) Gaslini Institute, Italy, (4) University of Genova, Italy


Omics data integration for the identification of cell-type-specific gene regulatory networks and regulatory variants in Parkinson’s disease

PHOTO: Borja Gomez Ramos

Authors: Borja Gomez Ramos (1,2), Jochen Ohnmacht (1,2), Nikola de Lange (2), Aurélien Ginolhac (1), Aleksandar Rakovic (5), Christine Klein (5), Roland Krause (2) , Marcel H. Schulz (6), Thomas Sauter (1), Rejko Krüger (2,3,4) and Lasse Sinkkonen (1)

Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) have identified many variants associated with different diseases. However, it is still a challenge to make sense of this data as the majority of genetic variants are located in non-coding regions, complicating the understanding of their functionality. In the last few years, it has been found that non-coding genetic variants concentrate in regulatory regions in the genome, which are cell type and cell-stage specific. In this project, we seek to identify functional Parkinson’s disease GWAS non-coding genetic variants that could make carriers more prone to developing PD. To do so, we are using induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology to differentiate somatic cells into midbrain dopaminergic (mDA) neurons, astrocytes and microglia. Assessing their chromatin accessibility, active chromatin regions and transcriptome, we can identify crucial regulatory regions in the genome, key transcription factors and derive the gene regulatory networks for the three different cell types. Then, we will map the non-coding genetic variants to the different regulatory regions and predict their effect in silico for the subsequent validation in vitro. This innovative approach will also identify novel factors controlling cell fate and cell identity.

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(1) Life Sciences Research Unit, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, (2) Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, (3) Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg (CHL), Luxembourg, (4) Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), Luxembourg, (5) Institute of Neurogenetics, University of Lübeck, Germany, (6) Institute for Cardiovascular Regeneration, Uniklinikum and Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany


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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 three of the five award-winning posters decided by popular vote.

Citrate carrier links intermediate metabolism to histone acetylation upon ageing of mouse mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs)

PHOTO: Andromachi Pouikli

Authors: Andromachi Pouikli (1), Monika Maleszewska (2), Swati Parekh (1), Chrysa Nikopoulou (1), Maarouf Baghdadi (1), Linda Partridge (1), Peter Tessarz (1)

Chromatin and metabolism interact in a reciprocal manner; on one hand metabolism-related genes are subjected to epigenetic modifications, which regulate gene expression. On the other hand, intracellular metabolism provides metabolites which can serve as essential co-factors and substrates for chromatin-modifying enzymes, affecting their activity. Although, it is well established that the process of ageing is accompanied by changes in metabolism and by chromatin alterations, their interplay in this context remains still poorly understood. In this study we sought to determine how ageing impinges on the relationship between cellular metabolism and the epigenome, using mouse mesenchymal stem cells from the bone marrow (BM-MSCs). In brief, our data suggest that there is a strong and direct link between the metabolic and the epigenetic states of the cell, with ageing-driven changes in metabolism regulating gene transcription and BM-MSC’s stemness, via alterations of the chromatin structure. We conclude that physiological ageing elicits changes in metabolism, resulting in suppressed glycolysis and impaired lipid biogenesis. Moreover, we demonstrate that during ageing there are lower levels of histone acetylation, despite the higher acetyl-CoA levels. We provide a solid explanation for this apparent discrepancy, pointing to the impaired export of acetyl-CoA from mitochondria to the cytosol. Indeed, the protein levels of the citrate carrier Slc25a1 decrease dramatically upon ageing. Using inhibition and supplementation experiments we provide a causal relationship between Slc25a1 function and the levels of histone acetylation, which directly influence chromatin accessibility and plasticity. Collectively, our data establish a tight, age-dependent connection between metabolism, epigenome and stemness and identify citrate carrier as the responsible protein for the mitochondrial-nuclear communication.

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(1) Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Germany, (2) Personalis Inc, Germany


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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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


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How does the environment play a role in biodiversity?

Biodiversity – in all its forms and interactions – is the variety of life on Earth. Climate change is exacerbating biodiversity loss, and vice versa. Ahead of the EMBO | EMBL Symposium ‘The Organism and its Environment’ (1–4 March 2020), we talk to Scientific Organiser and EMBL Director General Edith Heard about the impact the environment has on biodiversity and the role of research in solving global challenges.

Does the environment play a large role in the creation of biological diversity?

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth. This life, in all its shapes and sizes, occurs in the context of ecosystems: it relies on and interacts with other organisms and the physical environment. Biodiversity represents the collective ‘knowledge learned’ by evolving species over millions of years, about how to survive the vastly varying environmental conditions Earth has and is experiencing. These varying environmental conditions cause natural variations in biodiversity, as well as genetic and epigenetic changes, within and between species over time. Today, scientists are trying to understand the basis of these natural variations, as they will allow us to understand how life evolves.

Fish populations have declined at an alarming rate, and half the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in just 30 years.

But biodiversity is also a measure of the health of any ecosystem. Recent trends in biodiversity loss show very clearly that humans are destroying ecosystems on a massive scale. According to the Director General of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), increased pollution, deforestation, climate change and other manmade factors have created a “mind-blowing” crisis. The WWF Living Planet Report 2018 (WWF LPR, 2018) also states that freshwater fish populations have declined by more than 80% on average since 1970 and half of the world’s shallow water coral reefs have been lost in the last 30 years (WWF LPR, 2018). Alongside this, deforestation of tropical rainforests means we are currently losing more than 100 species of plants and animals a day (Holley, 2017). In short, human’s influence on the environment greatly impacts biodiversity and we are currently burning the library of life.

How can you determine the effect of the environment on an organism?

The environment can affect an organism in a multitude of ways. The impact can be transient or longer term; within an individual or across generations. The environment can also lead to molecular, cellular, physiological or behavioural changes. For example, the expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the external environment, such as where the organism develops or factors associated with where it is located. Gene expression could also be influenced by an organism’s internal environment, including hormones or metabolism. Finally, the genome itself – genetic factors that vary between individuals in natural populations – could also influence gene expression.

Research groups at EMBL look at how variety in organisms comes about

Untangling the impact of genetic and environmental variation can be very challenging and for a long time, scientists have tended to focus on minimising variations in the environment in order to understand how changes in genotype affect phenotype. This, alongside the deeply embedded “one genotype = one phenotype” metaphor, has meant that environmentally induced phenotypic variation has been ignored in favour of ‘‘more useful and precise’’ study of genetic polymorphisms. This is despite the fact that from as far back as the early 1900s, scientists have known that the phenotype of an individual depends on the interaction between its genotype and environmental cues! Today, we finally have the power to consider the impact of the environment on phenotype. We can make precise measurements at the molecular, cellular and organism scales in controlled environments that can be varied and we can sequence genomes at the same time.

We can also take human data paired with environmental data – for example in the context of some of EMBL’s research interests such as infectious disease and microbiomes – to understand the quantitative effects of the environment and its influence on human biology. Pioneering projects such as Tara Oceans have also allowed us to research the interactions between organisms and the environment by generating reference data, discovering emergent ecological principles and developing predictions about how ecosystems will be affected by a changing environment. Understanding how organisms exist together and in changing environments is of fundamental importance for our understanding of biological principles and our knowledge of life.

What challenges are currently being faced in this field?

Studying organisms in their environment will become increasingly important.

Understanding the behaviour of individual molecules, cells or whole organisms is already challenging. Understanding how the environment influences an organism – or populations of organisms – represents a whole new scale in complexity. This is an area that I think EMBL could uniquely contribute to in the future. It will be necessary to shift from researching organisms mainly in the laboratory to studying them in their environment. We will also need to ensure the rapid development of technologies and tools to meet these scientific needs. Alongside this, we need new approaches to integrate large, complex data sets and make sense of them. To rise up to this challenge, we need theory. We are now in a unique position to address the dynamics and complexity of living matter across multiple scales and in the context of changing environment. But we need theory to address societal and planetary issues too. We must aim for a rate of scientific discovery that outpaces the rate of calamity such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, epidemics and climate change.

What can be done to prepare for the future with regard to biological diversity, the organism and its environment?

Research, research and more research! Environmental problems such as the hole in the ozone layer or acid rain were solved by sound scientific approaches. We need to learn from these past scientific and societal successes. Today the ever-increasing numbers of new technologies are allowing us to collect, measure and store data at unprecedented scales. We also need to bring ecologists, zoologists, population geneticists and environmental experts together to address these research questions. Together we can apply cutting-edge technology with rigour, attract new scientific talent and disseminate knowledge to global communities.

What inspired you to organise this symposium?

As a geneticist and epigeneticist, I have explored the intersection between genotype and the environment and how that produces a phenotype. From observing many areas of research – ranging from social insects such as bees and ants, to plant vernalisation and variations between identical twins – I felt that the time is ripe to bring together scientists from many different areas. I also wanted this to be a symposium that would attract scientists from different areas to EMBL.

At EMBL, we want to understand the molecular basis of life. Until now, EMBL has been known for exploring genomic, molecular, structural and cell biology at the level of individual organisms. Looking ahead, we want to study organisms in the context of their physical and biological environments not just in isolation. In order to truly understand life on Earth, we need to study organisms in nature, not just in the lab. One way to understand life at the molecular level will be to try to bring relevant ecosystems back to the lab, to measure and perturb them under controlled conditions. The speakers we’ve invited are experts from many different areas of biology or ecology, and will bring exciting new perspectives to our research.

The EMBO|EMBL Symposium: The Organism and its Environment will take place at EMBL Heidelberg, Germany, from 1-4 March 2020

What is the greatest benefit of this symposium for the scientific community?

The symposium is an opportunity to address how organisms are influenced by a changing environment. It will bring together different research disciplines and go beyond pure genetic or ecological perspectives of phenotypic variation. Geneticists, molecular biologists, evolutionary biologists and ecologists do not necessarily meet under ordinary circumstances. This meeting will enable such interactions and cross-fertilisation.

What will be the main highlight of the symposium?

Today we are in a unique position to address the complexity and dynamics of life at multiple scales, from molecules to ecosystems. We also need to consider the idea that change including in the environment is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, without change, evolution could not occur and none of the amazing biodiversity of life on our planet would exist! I hope that a highlight of this symposium will be some wonderful new insights into evolutionary processes.

 

References

Holley D., (2017). General Biology II, Organisms and Ecology. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 898.

World Wildlife Fund, (2018). Living Planet Report: Aiming higher [PDF] https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/ [Accessed 25 July 2019].

https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/

However the WWF DG is quoted by several articles as describing the crisis as mind-blowing, for example: “https://www.voanews.com/science-health/report-earth-has-lost-60-percent-its-wildlife-1970

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