A Biochemical Society Independent Meeting
The UK Dictyostelium meeting returned to Central London for the first time in nearly 20 years with a very diverse programme, sampling the full range of biological interest that the organism, and its genetic and biochemical tractability, generates. The meeting began with a varied exposition of the rich genomics expertise available to the community, from functional genomics, through to the exciting discovery of novel mobile genetic elements. Allied to the genomics work is a strong surge in the use of the organism in identifying the targets of drugs that are clinically useful in various neurological disorders. The molecular conservation of many disease-linked genes means that, combined with the genetics, the organism provides a convenient screening platform for finding the targets of orphan drugs, and understanding the cellular processes that are perturbed in what can be very complex pathologies.
Much the heart and soul of Dictyostelium research over the past several decades has been the contribution of the organism to our understanding of cell motility and chemotaxis, where the organism is far easier to make progress with than the disease-relevant leukocytes that attempt to emulate it. The motility session did not disappoint, introducing mechanisms and models that may open the door to historically intractable problems, such as how neuronal growth cones can migrate metres in the correct direction during development. Linked to the experimental strength of the system in uncovering the mechanism underlying cell motility, is a rich vein of signal transduction research, where the signalling matmos is strongly reminiscent of more complex eukaryotes- contrasting yeast, where there is some molecular overlap, but major differences in regulatory connectivity. The current “hot” signalling molecule is inorganic polyphosphate or polyP, research into which began decades ago but has progressed little since, in any system.
A more recent major contribution of the organism has been in the world of single cell biology, where the organism was used to pioneer methods to image the transcription of individual genes in single living cells. Several talks spanned this rapidly expanding subject, including two introducing single cell transcriptomics as a means to globally interrogate the processes that make cells different during development. Unlike many recent single cell transcriptomics studies in mammalian systems, which appear to be restricted to cell taxonomy, the Dictyostelium work is making mechanistic discoveries.
Whilst a number of experimental models may feel invigorated by recent advances in genome editing, for example, by finally allowing the analysis of targeted mutations in your favourite sick cancer cell line, the strength of Dictyostelium research continues to be: a) its diversity- researchers of a single biological sphere of interest rarely get forced to consider so many diverse forms of biology beyond their favourite protein complex, b) its relative simplicity- which means it is far more likely one can interpret the effects of any perturbation one makes, and c) the wholeness of the model from cell to development- one is understanding a complete functioning system, not an isolated cancer or stem cell in culture that has little hope of fulfilling the potential prescribed by evolution.