Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back from ISME 14

I just left Copenhagen, where the 14th International Symposium on Microbial Ecology took place from August 19 to 24. This was a busy meeting, with 2,200 attendees (a new record), hundreds of presentations and countless posters. ISME is the biggest meeting of microbial ecologists – a wide crowd that covers everything from molecular biologists to bioengineers, ecologists and evolutionary biologists.

This diversity is part of what makes ISME an interesting meeting. Not only the diversity of the participants’ background, but also the variety of topics: within the same day you can follow talks about forest soil, deep-sea vents, biogas plants or the human body.
Some of the highlight moments included the ceremony of the Tiedje Award (from Jim Tiedje, founder of ISME), which was awarded to Stephen Giovannoni, professor at Oregon State University, for his "outstanding lifetime contribution to the field of microbial ecology". Giovannoni is famous for is work on SAR11, one of the most abundant marine bacteria. SAR11 is a tiny alpha-Proteobacterium (it's only 1 micron big), but it is an important bacterioplankton, playing a key role in the global carbon cycle. Giovannoni recently made the interesting claim that SAR11 is closely related to mitochondria (Thrash et al., 2011). However, as a friend pointed to me, this is most likely wrong (Brindefalk et al., 2011; Rodriguez & Embley, 2012). 

Copenhagen, photo from ISME
Another important moment was the presidency’s handover: Steven Lindow transferred it to Michael Wagner. Wagner, from the University of Vienna, is a great microbiologist and a pioneer in single-cell methods (FISH and all its derivatives). He is also chief editor of one of the leading journals in the field, Environmental Microbiology. Wagner gave an excellent keynote presentation: Using the example of ammonium oxidation, he wittily showed that ‘omics’ techniques were great but not enough, and that you cannot infer metabolic activity from the mere presence of a gene. (There was a lot of ‘omics’ during this conference, so it was a welcomed reminder.)

I quite enjoyed the "bird's eye view" talk by Patrick Forterre, form the Pasteur Institute. He stimulated some discussion with his concept of  the virocell, which is the idea that a virus is not limited the viral particle (or virion), but should be apprehended as the entity consisting of a cell reprogrammed by viral DNA to produce more virions. Sometimes it's good to kick in the hornet's nest.

Overall it was a good meeting as far as I’m concerned – I could catch up with many colleagues and I found many talks stimulating. As always, however, I’m a bit tired with the self-satisfaction communicated by the organizers: Everything is great, terrific, groundbreaking! Some of the presented science is great, undoubtedly, but certainly not all that was shown. Well, I suppose we have to deal with some scientific etiquette. But couldn’t we come up with some quantitative measurement of a conference’s success? Unrealistic, perhaps, but that would be an interesting attempt.

Next ISME meeting will take place in Seoul, South Korea, in 2014. I hope to be there!

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