First fun at MGC 2011

posted in: Science | 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, a good contingent of the Biofortified gang is here at the 2011 Maize Genetics Conference in St. Charles, Illinois. This 3-4 day event is the 53rd conference in its long history. After I walked out of the NCCC-167 meeting to pick up my name tag and conference book for MGC, Anastasia had just arrived and we started chatting about many of the things that have been going on with the blog, and in the world. We put up our posters (Anastasia has a research poster and one for MaizeResearch.org, and I brought our latest blog poster) and had dinner. That’s when the first awesome thing happened.

When we sat down at a table with our food, a guy named Carl sat down across from us. He took a look at our name tags and told us he knows – and likes – our blog. First name-recognition from the blog! We talked with him and the other members of the ad-hoc table party about what we all do, and interesting issues in genetic engineering. We learned a little about GE crop regulations and how bizarringly strict they can be sometimes.

For instance, many regulations require that every base pair in the plasmid you use to transform a GE crop be accounted for. The sequence is the easy part, however often times these circular pieces of DNA that genetic engineers use to insert a gene into a plant have been cobbled together from parts from various species to make the mature vector with all its useful parts. This is how exact it must be – you have to be able to say where every base in the plasmid came from. For every A, C, T, G, however inconsequential they may be – you have to say where it came from. If you inserted a restriction enzyme site (makes a place to cut the DNA) with PCR or some other tool, you have to list that. Any single letter unexplained, though it may be far from a gene and thus very unlikely to affect anything, could be cause for rejection. Consider that not everything in this plasmid even gets incorporated into your plant – it seems that explaining the presence of one Thymine in a string of letters that doesn’t even get into the plant is pretty weird. Are these the things that matter most, really?

We also learned something about some of the tests required to verify aspects of GE crops for approval, such as making sure that you know where the transgene is integrated into the plant genome. Originally, an experiment called a Southern Blot was used to confirm where the gene went. Southern blots are useful for checking the length of a region of DNA in any specific place you want in the genome. If you made a blot that was specific for the place your gene popped into, you would see a size difference in your piece of DNA. It would show the original region plus the length of the DNA you inserted. Today, however, we have much more advanced tools that can be used to sequence every base pair in and around your transgene, giving far more information than the Southern Blot. But the blot is still required, and may be for a long time. It would be like having to learn a stick shift vehicle to get your license when every car is an automatic – this also doesn’t make sense. Regulations such as these are a mix of science and politics, and what worries me is that any attempt to change things, such as removing the southern blot requirement, would immediately be framed as “weakening” the regulations. Interesting discussion. It would be great to get a guest post from someone who has more experience with these regulations to help us all find out more about the scientific and bureaucratic details involved.

After dinner, it was time for the introduction and the first plenary talks. It is tradition at the MGC to ask everyone who is attending the conference for the first time to stand up for cheers and accolades.  Then, everyone who has attended 2 or more conferences gets to stand. Then 5 or more, 10, 15, and on up to 50. Always at the top are Ed Coe and Gerry Neuffer. Ed could not make it this year, so Gerry was the last man standing. He was at the first Maize Genetics Conference as a graduate student in 1959, and has only missed two conferences in his life. That’s a whopping 51 conferences! Here is Gerry posing with Frank.

Gerry Neuffer
Gerry Neuffer never met an ear of corn he didn't like

The Plenary talks that followed were interesting. The first was about the knowns and unknowns about factors that influence yield in maize, by Elizabeth Lee. Simon Chan followed with a very cool talk about changing centromeres in Arabidopsis to make the offspring of the plant inherit just half of one parent’s chromosomes and nothing else. It also had implications . Not only was it fascinating in the approach used, but the implications for being able to ‘fix’ hybrid vigor an/or reduce the number of plants that were screened, but it also suggested an explanation for why when you cross distantly-related species, why they might lose chromosomes from one or both of the parents, if I understood the talk correctly. Cool stuff.

Afterward, we all adjourned to the hall with all the posters to meet up with colleagues both from near and far, and have some drinks. As it was St. Patrick’s Day, one bartender was wearing leprechaun ears while serving cups of beer on the house!

The Maize Genome Database folks were out in full force at this time, trying to get people interested in the many genetic resources that they have on their site, and they were looking for input for a site redesign from the attendees. It was almost like a kiddie’s corner with scientists getting MaizeGDB Tattoos and rearranging website pieces on a magnetic board!

Anastasia and I both got tats on our hands to forever show our Zea mays pride. Well, at least until it rubs off.

Tattooed Hands
Only badass maize geneticists wear MaizeGDB tattoos

Frank also got one and wanted to show it off in front of the MaizeGDB cloodle!

Frank 'N' Tattoo
Frank looks fearsome with his new tat

The end of the night arrived before we managed to kill our voices – so it was time to recharge for the next day of this marathon conference.

Friday morning had some interesting talks, some neat stuff, but this post is already getting pretty long as it is. So instead, I will just mention one talk. James Schnable, UC Berkeley grad student, blogger extraordinaire at James and the Giant Corn, and Biofortified contributor, gave an oral presentation in front of the entire conference. He talked about his research on the “two genomes” in maize. In the history of this species, its chromosomes got duplicated, leaving twice as many copies of each gene. Over time, some of the duplicate genes from these two genomes got lost, as things got scrambled around over innumerable generations. James used Sorghum, a close relative of maize that did not have this duplication event happen, to piece together the history of these genes and where they all went. Awesomeness! Very good job.

James Schnable Talk

It is almost time for lunch now, so I will leave it at that. During the conference, we will be adding more photos to our Flickr photo album as we can. They will also appear here in our on-site photo album. There’s lots more science to come, and hopefully we can get more of this out to you than ever before!

This afternoon, we will be at the poster session to talk about our projects. If you are at the conference and want to come find us, Anastasia will be at her research poster (#263) from 1:30-3 pm, and her MaizeResearch.org poster (#196) from 3-4:30. Frank and I will be at the Biofortified poster (#299) from 1:30-3 pm ready to tell all about the blog and see if anyone wants to be a star and pose with Frank.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.