Best Poster Awards – In Situ Structural Biology Workshop

The EMBO Workshop: In Situ Structural Biology: From Cryo-EM to Integrative Modelling was our final virtual conference of 2020, but there was no trace of Zoom fatigue amongst the 466 participants who joined us from 6 – 8 December!

80 international researchers presented their posters during the two posters sessions on the following topics:

  • Biophysical analysis in cells
  • COVID-19
  • Imaging across scales
  • Integrative modelling
  • Molecular sociology
  • Structural analysis in situ
  • Structural biology

Each of the participants had the chance to vote for their favourite poster, resulting in two posters winning the Best Poster Award kindly sponsored by EMBO Press.  Here are the winners:

New insights on the catalytic mechanism of arsenite oxidase

PHOTO: Filipa Engrola

Authors: Filipa Engrola, Márcia Correia, Teresa Santos-Silva, Maria Romao, (UCIBIO@FCT-NOVA, Portugal)

Arsenic (As) and antimony (Sb) are two metalloids that, due to anthropogenic and natural causes, pose an environmental  threat, considered as priority pollutants by the World Health Organisation and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Although the safety guards recommend a maximum of 10 μg/L of As and Sb in drinking water, these values are exceeded in many regions worldwide, with no remediation approach that is simultaneously effective, clean and economically sustainable [1,2]. The ancient bioenergetic enzyme arsenite oxidase (Aio), from microorganisms Rhizobium sp. NT-26 (NT-26 Aio) and Alcaligenes faecalis (A.f. Aio), is currently being studied for its use as a biosensor and in bioremediation processes. Both Aio enzymes contain a large subunit (AioA) that harbours a molybdenum centre and a [3Fe-4S] cluster, and a small subunit (AioB) that possess a Rieske [2Fe-2S] cluster and have demonstrated to oxidise AsIII, as well as SbIII, into the easier to remove and less toxic forms of AsV and SbV, respectively [3,4]. Aiming to elucidate the catalysis mechanism of the enzymes, a combination of expression and purification of the proteins, crystallisation, structural analysis, enzyme kinetics and affinity tests were conducted. X-ray structures of the ligand-free form of the enzyme had been previously determined (PDB: 4AAY, 5NQD and 1G8K [3,5,6]). In our work, Aio crystals in complex with two different forms of the substrate analogue – Sb oxyanions, with a reaction kinetic 6500 times slower than AsIII [6] – diffracted up to ca 1.8 Å resolution. The structures show the reaction intermediates bound at the active site, with a μ-oxo bridge binding Sb to the Mo atom. Analysis of bond lengths and geometry of the ligands at the Mo active site allowed us to revisit the catalytic mechanism of As oxidation [7], contributing to the understanding and future biotechnological application of this family of enzymes in water treatment.

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Allosteric hotspot in the main protease of SARS-CoV-2

PHOTO: Léonie Ströhmich

Authors: Léonie Strömich, Sophia N Yaliraki, (Imperial College London, UK)

Since the beginning of 2020 we have seen the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causing a global pandemic with almost 34 million cases and over 1 million deaths worldwide [as of 01.10.2020] [1.] As a result, we have seen a surge in research efforts to develop effective treatments for the underlying disease, COVID-19. One approach is to target the main protease (Mpro) of SARS-CoV-2 as it is essential for virus replication in an early step of the viral life cycle [2.] Most efforts are centred on inhibiting the orthosteric binding site of the enzyme. However, considering allosteric sites on the protein allows for more selective drug design and widens the chemical search space. Here, we report an allosteric hotspot in the SARS-CoV-2 Mpro dimer by using novel atomistic graph theoretical methods: Markov transient analyses follow the propagation of a random walker on a graph and have been shown to successfully identify allosteric communication in catalytic proteins [3.] We further score the so identified allosteric hotspots against random sites in similar distances and thus identify a statistically significant putative allosteric site in the SARS-CoV-2 Mpro. We then simulate a binding event at this hotspot region using data from a recent XChem fragment screen by the Diamond Light Source [4.] which provides a starting point for rational drug design. This study uses highly efficient network theoretical models to shed light on allosteric communication and uncovers putative allosteric sites in the SARS-CoV-2 main protease. This provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing efforts to find a cure against COVID-19 by broadening the horizon for drug discovery efforts.

Image: Léonie Ströhmich

[1.] Official World Health Organization COVID-19
dashboard: (Accessed: 01.10.2020).
[2.] Hilgenfeld, R. (2014). FEBS Journal, 281(18), 4085-4096.
[3.] Amor, B., Yaliraki, S. N., Woscholski, R., & Barahona, M. (2014) Molecular BioSystems, 10(8), 2247-2258.
[4.] Douangamath, A., Fearon, D., Gehrtz, P., Krojer, T., Lukacik, P., Owen, C. D., … Walsh, M. A. (2020) Nature Communications, 11, 5047.

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Working on your own conference poster? Then check out these 8 tips for preparing a digital poster that stands out from the crowd.

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What is the Societal Impact of Infectious Disease?

There is no question that COVID-19 will have a profound and lasting impact on the world as we know it. For most of us, the pandemic is as unprecedented as it is distressing. I have a strong visceral image when I think of the current state of affairs – it is as if an unwelcome, shadowy presence has resolutely taken a seat at the head of the table, and is refusing to leave.

We are clearly not the first generation to witness the societal fallout of a devastating infectious disease, nor will we be the last. It feels to me that this pandemic has affected every area of our lives, but I often wonder how accurate this interpretation is. How can one measure the social, economic and political consequences of this virus? Is there really a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19, or are we simply repeating history? And how does the impact of the current pandemic compare with other infectious diseases – throughout time, or across different geographies or groups of people?

New seminar series

These questions both complement and contextualise the many scientific discussions which have taken place at EMBL since this pandemic emerged, and they provide insight into the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific research into infectious diseases.

In light of this, the Science & Society Programme is launching a special seminar series, “Infectious Disease and Society” to explore these issues through the lens of the life sciences. The series will consider the scientific and societal impact of infectious diseases, examining not only the COVID-19 pandemic from a number of angles, but also other infectious diseases such as salmonella and malaria. The first six of these talks are outlined below, and the page will be frequently updated with new seminars over the coming months.

Infectious Disease & Society: Seminars 

As the Science & Society Programme has explored the issue of infectious disease many times over the years, we are staggering the re-release of a select number of related talks from our archive. We will also complement these previous talks with a series of new virtual lectures, reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Selected talks from the archive:

The links below will transfer you to our Mediasite catalogue, where you are able to revisit these talks in your own time.

1) “Why have we not been able to eradicate Malaria’ – Prof. Dr. Friedrich Frischknecht, Department of Parasitology, Hygiene Institute, Heidelberg University School of Medicine [recorded May 2014]

2) “The open source outbreak: how can data prevent the next pandemic?”-  Jennifer Gardy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Deputy Director of Surveillance, Data and Epidemiology (formerly of BC Centre for Disease Control, and the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, where she held the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics) [recorded November 2018]

3) “1918 to 2018: a hundred years of influenza pandemics”- Prof. Kanta Subbarao, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Doherty Institute [recorded November 2018]

New infectious disease & society talks:

These new virtual lectures require registration, and are limited to 500 live participants. After the event has taken place, the talks will be added to our Mediasite catalogue, and can be accessed at any time.

1) “International frameworks for infectious disease control: past, present, and future” – Claire Standley, Assistant Research Professor, Center for Global Health Science & Security, Georgetown University Medical Center, Georgetown University [21st August at 14:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

2) “Salmonella & Society” – Olivia Steele-Mortimer, Deputy Chief of Laboratory of Bacteriology, Chief of Salmonella-Host Cell Interactions Section, NIH Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases [8th September at 16:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

3) “Livestock, the Global Environment, and COVID-19: a reflection on Livestock Systems before and after the Pandemic” – Alessandra Falcucci, Lead Geographic Information Systems Analyst, Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), Food & Agricultural Organisation of the UN [11th December at 11:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

We want to hear from you!

Future Infectious Disease & Society talks will cover a variety of topics – from economics to the environment and beyond. If you have any ideas for future talks as part of this special seminar series, or have any wider feedback about the Science & Society Programme, please email me at

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