Meeting report by EMBL event reporter Anusheela Chatterjee

Notepad and camera in hand, I made my way to the Klaus Tschira Auditorium, trying my best to NOT look like the feverishly enthusiastic, barely-a-few-months-into-the-new-job science writer. As Andrew Carter from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, adjusted the microphone to begin the session on microtubule motors, I geared up for the four-day symposium ‘Microtubules: From Atoms to Complex Systems’ at EMBL’s beautiful Heidelberg campus.

From 27-30 May, the EMBL ATC auditorium and foyer witnessed a spectacular meeting of graduate students, postdocs, young PIs, prominent scientists – all equally besotted with microtubules. The sessions covered an array of topics, namely, microtubule structure and dynamics, the interactions of microtubules with proteins, microtubule nucleation and assembly, microtubule-based transport, cell division, and multiple structural and functional aspects of neuronal microtubules. Fantastic science, the occasional moment of humour, new people and great food: my mind and stomach were never happier.

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Day 1: The first day saw a discussion on microtubule-based motor proteins: kinesin and dynein. Andrew Carter explained how two adaptor proteins form a complex with dynactin and two dyneins, facilitating faster transport along microtubules. The complexity of dynein stood out when Samara Reck-Peterson showed a marvellous in vitro reconstitution of the regulation of dynein by the lissencephaly protein LIS1. After an overview of a minimalistic model of kinesin-based mRNA transport by Sebastian Maurer, the session changed track to centrioles and cilia. A novel mechanism of how the microtubule-organising center (MTOC) is assembled was put forth by Mónica Bettencourt-Dias. The day reached an interesting end with a ‘speed dating’ session aimed at enhancing interactions between symposium participants. Needless to say, the ice was broken and I found myself smiling and nodding to several people who were unfamiliar till an hour before.

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Day 2: The keynote lecture of the meeting was given by Eva Nogales from the University of California, Berkeley. It was fascinating to see that her lab visualizes tubulin with an incredible resolution of 3.5 Å. Once this resolution is reached, it becomes possible to study the structures of proteins bound to microtubules. During the coffee break, Eva gave a small interview. By the end of it, I was already under the influence of her infectious enthusiasm. Microtubules exhibit diverse structures, mostly because of numerous post-translational modifications, and exist in multiple isoforms. Antonina Roll-Mecak discussed how this diversity in structure regulates tubulin dynamics. These dynamics were further explored when Luke Rice elaborated on the role of TOG domains in regulating the growth rate of microtubules. By this time, one could only imagine the staggering number of proteins (excluding motors) which bind to microtubules and potentially influence their dynamics. Kassandra Ori-McKenney led the way into elucidating the effect of this microtubule-associated protein (MAP) code on neuronal microtubules, and whether it had a role in restricting the movement of kinesin-1 into dendrites. The second day drew to a close with Anthony Hyman’s talk about his scientific career and the way his field of interest has moved forward.

Day 3: The third day began with talks on microtubule nucleation. Microtubule catastrophe factors may have an effect on the rate of microtubule nucleation. Gary Brouhard took a multipronged approach to explain the involvement of MAPs in templated nucleation of microtubules, thus addressing the rate of microtubule nucleation. Irina Kaverina reported the presence of non-random microtubule nucleation hotspots in the Golgi apparatus. One of the highlights of the day was the second Landmark Lecture of the meeting, given by Linda Wordeman. She gave a comprehensive overview of the role of kinesins in microtubule assembly dynamics. This day also saw an informative panel discussion on ‘Research in emerging regions and countries’. Representatives from Australia, Brazil, Chile, China and India discussed the various opportunities available to students and faculty in the premier research institutes of their respective countries. As soon as the panel discussion was over, it was time for the much-awaited barbecue. This is precisely when I wanted to borrow the Eye of Agamotto from Doctor Strange and loop the flow of time.

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Day 4: Lukas Kapitein began the session on ‘Neuronal microtubules, motors and MAPs’ with a long-exposure photograph of moving vehicles on a busy road at night. This helped the audience gauge his approach towards determining the orientation of microtubules through observation of the MAPs. A generous dose of humour found its way into the last day of the symposium with Hiro Ohkura, who addressed the formation of the mitotic spindle without centrosomes, and Manuel Théry, who convinced us that thermal noise is enough to start the turnover of tubulin dimers in the dynamic microtubule shaft.


There were around 200 posters, arranged along the ATC building’s two helices. Two-minute flash talks provided pointers regarding which posters to visit, but I had made up my mind to visit as many posters as possible, fully utilising this opportunity to complete my four-day crash course on microtubules. It was inspiring to see so many driven graduate students and postdocs excitedly speaking about their research. Microtubule assembly, centriole biogenesis, tau-like proteins, microtubule lattice repair, microtubule-based motors, cell polarity – the posters covered a wide range of research themes. In addition to their research preferences, a walk along the helices revealed the pop culture preferences of the presenters as well.

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One of the posters drew attention because of its unconventional content, showcasing both the researcher and his research. During the scientific sessions, Renaud Chabrier sketched portraits of the speaker and certain key components of the talk.

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As the meeting drew to a close, I could not help but marvel at the fast pace with which microtubule research is progressing. This EMBO | EMBL Symposium highlighted top-notch research which is undeniably at the forefront of this rapidly progressing field.