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Banbury Center

Director's Report - 2013

It was just over a year ago that our region was devastated by Superstorm Sandy and I am glad to say that there is little, if any, evidence left of its impact on Banbury. The Robertson House roof was speedily repaired, the debris cleared up and the fallen trees reduced to chips. The weather continued to be interesting with a major snowstorm in February, 2013, but fortunately Banbury was occupied by the Watson School of Biological Sciences’ course on microbial pathogenesis. The participants in the course did not have far to travel to get here.

2013_Banbury_Cover_2 One lingering effect of the storm was that meetings which were to have been held in 2012 were moved to 2013, so that the year was rather busy. We held 23 meetings with over 700 participants, in addition to three Watson School and six Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory courses. Altogether, the Center was used on 37 occasions in 2013. Participants in the meetings were drawn from no fewer than 40 states, probably a record, although as usual four states–California, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York– accounted for 51% of participants. Twenty-nine percent of participants were female, a proportion that has doubled over the years since 1988, and 50% of the 2013 meetings had at least one female organizer. Banbury meetings continue to have strong international participation with 18% of participants coming from 20 countries.

One of the postponed meetings was on Redesigning Photosynthesis – Identifying
Susanne von Caemmerer,
Bruce Stillman
Opportunities and Novel Ideas, organized by Donald Ort (University of Illinois) and Sabeeha Merchant (University of California, Los Angeles). Nearly all other biological processes on earth depend on the ability of photosynthesis to convert solar energy into chemical energy. There is a great deal of interest in the efficiency with which photosynthesis can accomplish this as it is the basis of the yield potential of both our food and bioenergy crops. In fact, photosynthesis is rather inefficient when all the costs are factored in; in the world’s best agricultural regions, about 1% of the total solar energy that falls on the field during the growing season is stored as chemical energy in the plant materials at the end of the season. Participants discussed whether the efficiency of solar energy capture by photosynthesis could be improved even though evolution has provided very little genetic variation in the component mechanisms of photosynthesis.

Tim Mitchell-Olds
The second plant science meeting in 2013 also dealt with metabolism. Organized by Toni Kutchan (Danforth Center, St. Louis),  Robert Last  (Michigan State University) and Anne Osborn (John Innes Centre, United Kingdom), Evolution of Plant Metabolic Diversity focused on the evolution of specialized metabolism in plants. Most classes of specialized compounds are taxonomically restricted, making their analysis less accessible to some of the traditional tools of biology. However, studies of diverse plants, including ‘non-model’ species, are benefiting greatly from recent advances in genomics, metabolomics, reverse genetics and synthetic biology. These tools are allowing rapid enzyme discovery and pathway identification, and the abundance of data across and within taxa creates unprecedented opportunities for comparative analysis. The meeting brought together leaders in studies of these biosynthetic pathways and their functions, along with researchers at the forefront of comparative genomics, evolution, systems and synthetic biology.  

Fred Gage, Haig Kazazian,
Ann Ferguson-Smith
The Banbury Center is known for having meetings on what might be called “emerging topics” and there were four such meetings in 2013.

The first was organized by Joshua Dubnau (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) and Fred Gage (Salk Institute for Biological Studies). Transposable elements are mobile genetic elements that constitute approximately 50% of the human genome. Some transposable elements have been shown to cause neurodegenerative diseases by insertional mutagenesis but very recently there have been reports that transposable elements are active during normalneurogenesis. This suggests that mobilization of transposable elements in the developing brain might contribute to neuronal diversification. If transposable element mobilization is important in normal brain development, we need to revise the way we think about the brain.
Vicki Lundblad, Lee Harrington

The involvement of telomeres in ageing and aging-related disorders has been known since Carol Greider and Bruce Futcher here at CSHL, together with Calvin Harley at McMaster University, showed that telomeres shorten as human diploid fibroblasts age in cell culture.  More recently, a growing body of evidence is implicating telomeres in the pathogenesis of several important degenerative disorders including pulmonary fibrosis, bone marrow failure, and diabetes. However, the underlying role of telomeres in these diverse disorders is not well understood. Is the role of shortened telomere length in these disorders due to effects on stem cells? What is the relationship between telomeres, mitochondria and cell death? Can measurement of telomere length be a useful diagnostic tool? Will an understanding of the role of telomeres in these disorders point to new therapeutic strategies? Organized by Mary Armanios (Johns Hopkins University) and Peter Lansdorp (University of Groningen), the meeting brought together scientists and clinicians to review and critically assess current data on how telomere dysfunction contributes to these diseases.

Job Dekker, Ken Zaret
Enhancers, transcriptional regulatory elements which, as their name suggests, enhance gene expression, have been studied for many years. In recent years, there has been rapid progress in identifying transcriptional regulatory elements and the factors that occupy them.  In particular, “super-enhancers”, large clusters of transcriptional enhancers, have been identified. Disease-associated sequence variation occurs in some of these regulatory elements and in the factors that bind them. “Enhancer Biology in Health and Disease”, organized by James Bradner (Dana Farber Cancer Institute), Joanna Wysocka (Stanford University), and Richard Young (Whitehead Institute),  brought together experts in enhancer biology to discuss the roles of super-enhancers in controlling gene expression and their impact on human health and disease. Topics included basic biology of enhancers (enhancers and chromatin folding, and enhancer dynamics), reviews of the evidence for enhancer involvement in diseases, and how to perform large-scale functional analysis of enhancers identified by sequencing.

Finally, it was a pleasure to have a former Watson School of Biological Sciences student be an organizer of a Banbury Center meeting. Yaniv Erlich left the WSBS with a Ph.D. in 2010 and is now at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical
Jan Witkowski, Steve Turner,
Maynard Olson, Tim Hunkapiller
Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yaniv and his colleagues caused something of a sensation in early 2013, when they published a paper showing that it was possible to recover surnames associated supposedly anonymized sequence data, using public, freely accessible internet resources. One concern is whether the ability to do this, even on a limited scale, might lead to restrictions on the availability of genome data. The goals of “Accelerate Genomic Research with Privacy Protections”, organized by Yaniv, Arvind Narayanan (Princeton University) and Robert Kain (Illumina Inc.) were to discuss technical strategies for maintaining privacy of genetic and –omics datasets so that future research would not be compromised. Participants were drawn from a particularly wide range of disciplines–human genetics, bioinformatics, cryptography, and ethics.

The continuing success of the Banbury Center program is due to the efforts of many people. Janice Tozzo and Pat Iannotti in the Banbury office, Basia Polakowski at Robertson House, and Jose Pena Corvera, Fredy Vasquez and Joe McCoy looking after the grounds, all worked very hard to keep the Center running smoothly. Culinary Services, Facilities and the Meetings Office played key roles in the operation of the Center. The meetings could not take place without the hard work of the organizers, the generosity of the Laboratory's Corporate Sponsors and the other donors who funded our meetings, and the Laboratory's scientists who continue to support the Center.

Jan Witkowski
Executive Director