Italian Genetics Societies in Assisi: staple foods and orphan crops via epigenomics and systems biology

Joint meeting of the Italian Genetics Societies Assisi

Joint meet­ing of the Italian Genetics Societies Assisi

Italian genetic research is in good health: this week I’m at a meet­ing held in the Cittadella in Assisi with about 500 people and 300 posters. The con­fer­ees reflect my own research interest with respect to spe­cies: about 80% of the work was on plants, and 80% of that work on crops, mak­ing a good start. The posters were all in English, as were the slides, but almost all the talks were in Italian, prov­ing an unusual chal­lenge. Nevertheless, my com­mand of Italian is improv­ing, and I am now flu­ent with Italian phrases such as “loss of func­tion mutanti” and “next gen­er­a­tion sequen­cing risultati”.

The three Genetics Societies in Italy – AGI, SIBV and SIGA  – put together a pro­gramme that nicely flagged the research going on in the coun­try with strong international-level pro­grammes. It was great that many of the top genet­i­cists took part in the meet­ing, includ­ing Roberto Tuberosa, Michele Morgante, Antonio Blanco, Giovanni Giuliano, Roberto Papa or Mariano Rocci, to name just a few from my area. Even bet­ter, many only played a sup­port­ing role to key labor­at­ory mem­bers who showed their own ded­ic­a­tion and hard work in their res­ults! This was much appre­ci­ated by the strong stu­dent rep­res­ent­a­tion, many of whom presen­ted their first work at this meet­ing with its informal and sup­port­ive ethos. Not least because of my gen­eral famili­ar­ity with the work presen­ted and its back­ground (mak­ing the lan­guage of present­a­tion less of a prob­lem for me), it was par­tic­u­larly valu­able to hear the Italian stu­dents and post-docs focus­ing on their con­tri­bu­tions to major European and inter­na­tional pro­jects, whether in whole gen­ome sequen­cing, annota­tion and func­tional ana­lysis, or in crop physiology, or animal genet­ics. The Organizers juggled the dif­fi­culty of breadth of cov­er­age with keep­ing the meet­ing short and focussed nicely, with plen­ary and mostly only two par­al­lel ses­sions. Major ses­sions were on top­ical issues such as epi­gen­et­ics and epi­ge­n­om­ics, then gen­ome plas­ti­city, mov­ing on to sys­tems bio­logy. Sadly though, des­pite cov­er­age of so many crops of spe­cial import­ance in Italy and the involve­ment of the agri­cul­tural genet­ics soci­ety, I failed to notice sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to dis­cus­sions or present­a­tions from breed­ers or seed organ­iz­a­tions, the end users of so much of the research discussed.

Thunderstoms, here approaching Assisi, kept us in the conference centre

Thunderstoms, here approach­ing Assisi, kept us in the con­fer­ence centre

At a couple of recent con­fer­ences, I have helped writ­ing a slightly more bal­anced report of many talks through Twitter. I’m not going to give any over­view of the meet­ing here – the abstracts are of course help­ful — but I can just point to a few pieces of work which I will cer­tainly be dis­cuss­ing with my lab. Next week. It was very excit­ing to hear and con­sider the con­sequences of mod­ern genetic work for the crops of par­tic­u­lar import­ance in Italy: a sys­tem­atic ana­lysis of tran­scrip­tom­ics through three wine vin­tages in three dif­fer­ent regions, all with same grape vari­ety, Corvina, demon­strated how mod­ern bio­logy is address­ing long-standing ques­tions about gen­o­type x envir­on­ment inter­ac­tions, agro­nomy and food pro­duc­tion (Dal Santo et al.). Genes involved in tran­scrip­tome plas­ti­city can be assigned to vine­yards with dif­fer­ent agro­nomic classes and plastic tran­scrip­tional drifts impacted meta­bolic rearrange­ments depend­ing on microen­vir­on­ment and grow­ing conditions.

Pre-breakfast viewing avoids the crowds at the posters

Pre-breakfast view­ing avoids the crowds at the posters

Several posters addressed the genet­ics and diversity of Tuber mag­natum, the white truffle, and one was even using mito­chon­drial DNA fin­ger­print­ing to identify the oils in paints used by the Renaissance artists of Italy. The next area of genet­ics research – integ­rat­ing sys­tems – was well-covered, with A Vigilante show­ing net­work ana­lysis approaches for identi­fy­ing gene asso­ci­ations or func­tions, and under­stand­ing con­sequences of gen­ome duplication.

I was really pleased to have been part of this meet­ing, and to have so many valu­able dis­cus­sions. I have a sub­stan­tial list of people where I want to con­tinue dis­cus­sions – ran­ging from needs for cyto­gen­etic text­books, to sys­tems bio­logy, to alien gene trans­fer. I hope some of the dis­cus­sions we had will lead to vis­its to my lab for peri­ods of joint research too. Of course, the beau­ti­ful envir­on­ment of the Cittadella in Assisi was ideal for the meet­ing. We could medi­ate on the impact of genet­ics in the shadow of St Francis and world’s finest renais­sance fres­coes, in a small enough venue (the con­fer­ence rep­res­en­ted nearly 15% of the total pop­u­la­tion of the town) that demand­ing med­it­a­tion (trans­lat­ing words of the Cittadella web­site) was in the frame­work of informal dis­cus­sions of molecu­lar genetics.

Back to reality: 77 hours without e-mails and 248 new ones!

Back to real­ity: 77 hours without e-mails and 248 new ones!


Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison. ORCID 0000-0002-3105-2167

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.

6 Responses

  1. Several com­ments have come in other media and e-mails pick­ing up my sen­tence “I failed to notice sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to dis­cus­sions or present­a­tions from breed­ers or seed organ­iz­a­tions, the end users of so much of the research dis­cussed.”
    “Ouch!” writes Luigi Guarino on Facebook, and notes that “Pat Heslop-Harrison calls ‘em like he sees ‘em.” at http://​agro​.biod​iver​.se/​2​0​1​1​/​0​9​/​n​i​b​b​l​e​s​-​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​n​g​-​u​s​-​h​e​i​r​l​o​o​m​s​-​s​e​q​u​e​n​c​i​n​g​-​n​u​s​-​n​u​t​r​i​t​i​o​n​-​s​t​r​a​t​e​g​i​e​s​-​p​o​t​a​t​o​e​s​-​a​n​d​-​c​l​i​m​a​t​e​-​c​h​a​n​ge/

    Unfortunately the dif­fi­culty mak­ing links of research­ers with the seed com­pan­ies and breed­ers is found in almost all of Europe, per­haps with the excep­tion of the Netherlands. While some con­fer­ences are really too far from applic­a­tion of research, there was so much that a breeder at almost any level could have thought about and in many cases applied in their own pro­grammes at the Assisi meet­ing. This applied both to glob­ally minor crops but ones which are prof­it­able for the spe­cial­ists and to major crops like cer­eals or grapes. It is hard to build the links but as research­ers we need to address the chal­lenge of involving these people as end users in our meet­ings, with a two-way dis­cus­sion of what they need and how our know­ledge can help breed­ing and sus­tain­ab­il­ity. In the longer term, we need their sup­port of what we are doing, and they need people who have been taught and trained by us!

    India is bril­liant in doing these things, with farm­ers’ cooper­at­ives, tis­sue culture/propagation com­pan­ies, exten­sion work­ers (run­ning tri­als etc), always at the meet­ings and will­ing to show you their lines, approaches, and dis­cuss applic­a­tions of what you say (see, for example, my blog from last year, http://​aobblog​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​1​2​/​b​a​n​a​n​a​-​s​u​s​t​a​i​n​s​-​f​o​r​-​n​u​t​r​i​t​i​o​n​-​f​o​r​-​l​i​v​e​l​i​h​o​o​d​s​-​a​n​d​-​f​o​r​-​t​h​e​-​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​nt/ ). USA is dif­fer­ent with the land-grant uni­ver­sit­ies tak­ing research all the way to fin­ished varieties.

    [edit 28/9 to remove scraper site reference]

  2. Pat, you might care to know that FarmIQ is a scraper site that sucks people’s con­tent and adds noth­ing except ads that pre­sum­ably gen­er­ate rev­enue that it does not share with its sources. That com­ment was Luigi’s; noth­ing to do with the source you attrib­uted it to.

  3. Thanks Jeremy — I’ve deleted the scraper ref­er­ence. Having been work­ing for the day largely on a paper with our Ethiopian col­leagues, I’m now work­ing on my thoughts about link­ing research and African applic­a­tions, without start­ing with the DNA sequence …