Record attendance at New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology

Written by event reporter Magdalena Wutkowska.

This year’s EMBO|EMBL Symposium: New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology took place 7-9 July 2021. For the first time in its history, the meeting was held virtually, with a record of over 650 attendees from all over the world. The three day programme featured six sessions, 36 talks, discussion panels and countless posters showcasing the newest scientific advances in the field.

This was my second time reporting during a virtual conference organised by EMBL, the first one being the EMBO Workshop: Molecular Mechanisms in Evolution and Ecology. It is interesting to note, even though the two meetings started with quite different scopes and aims, over time they began to resemble one another. Both meetings welcomed topics in microbiology that use cutting-edge techniques to disentangle and unravel microorganisms’ intricate worlds. The two meetings followed a similar format, which included a fairly intuitive online platform with links to presentations, posters, chats and a variety of other information prepared by the organisers.

A table with a laptop, a thermos with coffee or tea and a notebook on a desk.
My setup for the symposium

Pre-symposium sessions

As part of New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology, three special pre-symposium sessions explored transitioning to starting a lab, the nooks and crannies of publishing presented from the editor’s perspective and the future of scientific meetings in a post-pandemic world. The panelists shared many insightful ideas distilled from decades of experience in their work, and usually this type of knowledge is not so readily available, especially to early-career scientists.

From my personal perspective, the pre-symposium session on the future of scientific meetings was one of the most interesting, and is also a topic that will affect everyone in the scientific community. Gerlind Wallon representing EMBO shared results of a recent survey in which scientists were asked what they expected from meetings in the future and how did they perceive the online meetings that became a sudden reality for the scientific community, since the onset of the pandemic.

Scientific sessions

The scientific programme of the conference was fully packed with impressive and wide-ranging talks tackling most of the ‘big’ areas and pressing topics in microbiology. The first day was dedicated to systems biology, followed by the environment and antibiotics. The presentations on the second day dealt with regulation, signalling, protein machines and cell biology. The final day’s sessions covered novel approaches to study pathogenesis, infection, and microbiomes.

A common and reoccurring theme in many talks was the role of viruses in microbial systems and processes. The importance of that topic was strongly emphasised during the 1st day’s panel discussion on phage-microbe interactions, which  highlighted some new and exciting perspectives on viruses.

The highlights from the conference have been instantly reported on Twitter using #EESMicrobiology. If the data presented during a talk has already been published, there is usually a link to the associated paper(s) in the tweet.

Onsite to virtual to hybrid?

Pandemics brought many tragic events, but on the other hand, it gave us a chance to rethink many issues and come up with alternatives for our actions. Virtual meetings are perhaps one of the broadly acquired tools, which in my opinion should further be used to make science more available for people and lower our impact on the environment. Will the next “New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology” be held in a hybrid format?

Unexpected perks of attending online meetings from a favourite place!

This blogpost was written by Magdalena Wutkowka, Postdoc in Anne Daebeler’s Group, Soil and Water Research Infrastructure, Biology Centre CAS, České Budějovice (CZ).

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Best short talk winners at New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology

The popular symposium “New Approaches and Concepts in Microbiology” took place virtually this year. 598 people from across the globe joined from their own time zone. Two presenters impressed the crowd with their short talks, even though the local time for one of them was 4.50 am (that doesn’t count as morning yet, does it?).

Jordi van Gestel and Nitzan Tal were the well-deserved winners. Read about their research below.

Short-range quorum sensing controls horizontal gene transfer at micron scale in bacterial communities

Jordi van Gestel, University of California, San Francisco, USA

Presenter: Jordi van Gestel, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), USA

Introduction: I am a Postdoc in the laboratory of Carol Gross at UCSF. Being trained as an evolutionary biologist, I was introduced to the fascinating world of microbiology during my PhD and have been working at the interface of both fields ever since. My research focuses on the organisation and evolution of bacterial cell collectives.

Inside bacterial communities, cells often communicate through the release and detection of small diffusible molecules, a process termed quorum-sensing.

In general, signal molecules are thought to broadly diffuse in space; yet, paradoxically, cells often employ quorum-sensing to regulate traits that strictly depend on the local community composition, such as conjugative transfer. This raises the question if and how nearby cells in the community can be detected.

Here, we employ a microfluidic platform to determine how diverse quorum-sensing systems, differing in their regulatory design, impact the range of communication. While some systems indeed support long-range communication, we show that other systems support a novel form of highly localized communication.

In these systems, signal molecules propagate no more than a few microns away from signalling cells, due to the irreversible uptake of these signal molecules from the environment. This enables cells to accurately detect micron scale changes in the community composition and engage in local cell-to-cell communication.

Intriguingly, several mobile genetic elements, including conjugative elements and phages, employ short-range communication to specifically assess the fraction of susceptible host cells in their vicinity and adaptively trigger horizontal gene transfer in response. Our results underscore the complex spatial biology of bacteria, where cells both communicate and interact at widely different spatial scales.

Antiviral defense via nucleotide depletion in bacteria

Nitzan Tal, Department of Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Presenter: Nitzan Tal, Department of Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Introduction: I am a PhD student in the lab of Professor Rotem Sorek at the Weizmann Institute of Science. For the past few years I’ve been studying the interactions between bacteria and their viruses (bacteriophages), and how both adapt to ever changing conditions in order to survive. My research focuses on identifying novel anti-viral defense systems and on understanding the extremely diverse arsenal of microbial immunity.


DNA viruses and retroviruses need to consume large quantities of deoxynucleotides (dNTPs) when replicating within infected cells. The human antiviral factor SAMHD1 takes advantage of this vulnerability in the viral life cycle, and inhibits viral replication by degrading dNTPs into their constituent deoxynucleosides and inorganic phosphate.

In this study, we report that bacteria employ a similar strategy to defend against phage infection. We found a family of defensive dCTP deaminase proteins that, in response to phage infection, convert dCTP into deoxy-uracil nucleotides. A second family of phage resistance genes encode dGTPase enzymes, which degrade dGTP into phosphate-free deoxy-guanosine (dG) and are distant homologs of the human SAMHD1.

Our results show that the defensive proteins completely eliminate the specific deoxynucleotide (either dCTP or dGTP) from the nucleotide pool during phage infection, thus starving the phage of an essential DNA building block and halting its replication. Our study demonstrates that manipulation of the deoxynucleotide pool is a potent antiviral strategy shared by both prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

For tips and tricks on how to give a good scientific talk, watch this video

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