Cell Bio Virtual 2021: A Retrospective

One of the hardest articles for me to write each year is the review of the ASCB annual meeting. How does one summarize hours of presentations of leading-edge cell biology or the lively and spontaneous interactions that happen during Q&As or networking sessions? Whether the meeting has been in-person or online, it’s always a challenging writing assignment. 

So let me offer you a tiny glimpse—some thin-sections—of what transpired at Cell Bio Virtual 2021–an ASCB|EMBO Online Meeting. And if you missed it, I hope my retrospective evokes a strong sense of “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out) so that you never skip a future iteration of the Society’s most important annual event. 

Cell Bio Virtual 2021 began December 1, with the first three days of the meeting devoted to Education and Professional Development. Highlights from this segment of the meeting included the Education Minisymposium; talks hosted by the LGBTQ+ Committee, the Minorities Affairs Committee, and the Committee for Postdocs and Students; as well as the inspiring and insightful Bruce Alberts Award lecture, Scholarship of Diversity Keynote, and Mentoring Keynote. There were also sessions on nonacademic careers; publishing and preprints; science communication; and diversity, equity and inclusion. Special to this year, the Women in Cell Biology Committee (WICB) celebrated its 50th anniversary. The session included a fascinating research and mentoring presentation from Sandra Wolin, the 2021 WICB Sandra K. Masur Senior Leadership Award winner. But the crown jewel of the WICB session was the four hilarious and sometimes cringe-inducing Mentoring Theatre skits. In one skit, Wolin returned with Sandra Masur to travel back in time to the early 1970s to re-enact the “not quite so good old days” of what life was like for them as graduate students and early-career researchers with new labs and young families. Wolin and Masur revealed the surprising attitudes and policies that they had to put up with during those days. Recordings of some of the Education and Professional Development sessions will be available to watch soon as ASCB “member only” content on the website. 

Scientific sessions kicked off on December 6, led by Xiaowei Zhuang’s keynote “Spatially Resolved Single-cell Genomics and Cell Atlas of Complex Tissues.” Zhuang uses an imaging technique called STORM (or Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy) that brings out many nanoscale structures and interactions in the cell that previously were not clearly visible. Seriously, it was like putting on glasses with the correct prescription after getting by with drugstore readers. After that visual feast, it was on to the rest of the meeting with Symposia, Minisymposia, Workshops, Panel Discussions, and Exhibitor Tech Talks. 

In addition to Education and Professional Development, the annual meeting has seven scientific meeting tracks: Communal Cell, Cellular Dynamics, Specialized Cell and Evolution, Cells in Distress and Disease, Signaling and Metabolism, Physical Cell, and Cellular Genome. Choosing which scientific talks to feature is tricky, but I have chosen seven to represent a bit of each track. All the talks given at the annual meeting are chosen because they are of the highest quality. The ones I have selected here just happened to catch my eye—maybe they had cool images or videos, or I found the topic or speaker noteworthy.

Cool Imaging Tools 

During the subgroup Reimagining Cell Biology: Emerging Tools for Imaging, Modeling, and Systems Integration, Mustafa Mir spoke about ways one can better image regulatory proteins related to development in vivo without perturbing fruit fly embryos. Mir, who is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, described a method using high-resolution lattice light-sheet microscopy, as well as single molecule tracking and analysis that revealed how transcription factors Bicoid and Zelda assemble into hubs. The timing and location of the hubs help direct transcription activity in the developing Drosophila melanogaster. Mir had some pretty cool videos showing these hubs quickly forming and moving. Learn more on his laboratory website: www.mir-lab.com.

The Virus Who Shall Not Be Named

With coronavirus on my mind, I definitely wanted to check out the workshop panel “Cell Biology of Viruses,” and John Poirier’s talk caught my attention. Poirier is an assistant professor in the Preclinical Therapeutics Program at New York University Langone Health who studies cancer. However for this talk, he described genetic screening methods used to identify coronavirus host factors. The goal was to discover the host proteins and pathways that are required for the virus to infect human cells with the aim of using anti-viral therapeutics (perhaps already being used for something else) to block them. Poirier used Huh 7.5 cells (human hepatocyte cells), which were shown to be uniformly infected by a variety of strains of coronavirus. Through extensive screening, Poirier discovered “multiple enriched pathways with translational opportunities for small molecule inhibition.” Find out more on the Poirier Lab website: www.poirierlab.org.

Plant Cell Biology

There are many talks about both eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells at the Society’s annual meeting, but who is talking about plant cells? In the subgroup “Not Just a Cellular Railroad: Microtubules as Cargoes and Signaling Centers,” Carolyn Rasmussen focused on “Microtubule Dynamics during Plant Cell Division Plane Orientation.” Rasmussen is an associate professor of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who studies TANGLED1, a microtubule-binding protein in maize. Plant cells divide when “a new cell wall is built in the middle of the cell by vesicles trafficked along an antiparallel microtubule and microfilament array called the phragmoplast.” But division won’t proceed as expected if the phragmoplast is mis-oriented. Ramussen is trying to understand the systems guiding the establishment and maintenance of the division plane in plants. Find out more on the Rasmussen Lab webpage: https://rasmussenlab.weebly.com.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Do you know anyone who has or who has died from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease? I do, and it is a horrific way to die. So I like to keep up with new research on this neurodegenerative disease. During the Minisymposium on Nuclear Organization in Space and Time, Alyssa Coyne, a postdoctoral fellow from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, spoke about how CHMP7 (or Charged Multivesicular Body Protein 7) accumulates in the nucleus of neuronal cells in both inherited (familial) and randomly occurring (sporadic) ALS. CHMP7 build-up in the nucleus subsequently leads to the injury of the nuclear pore complex through the damage and reduction of certain nucleoporins (NUPS). This accumulation and damage is an early sign of both types of ALS. If Coyne can discover why CHMP7 is relocalizing to the nucleus and also how the reduction of NUPS occurs, then CHMP7 could become a potential therapeutic target for the disease. Find out more about Coyne’s research at https://neurodegenlab.org/members/alyssa-coyne-ph-d.

Forces on Cancer Cells

Jorge Barbazán, who completed this research at Institut Curie in France, spoke about how Cancer Associated Fibroblasts (CAFs) remodel the extracellular matrix and actively compress cancer cells by creating a sort of capsule around tumors. His talk was presented during the Subgroup “Mechanical Forces and the 3D Sculpting of Cell–matrix Interactions and Tissues.” Although the capsule defines the margins of the tumor, Barbazán added that the compression forces created by this barrier also trigger mechanical signals that can increase cancer cell invasion. His presentation described how he and his colleagues mapped the force patterns of CAFs in 3D and showed “that compression is an intrinsic property of CAFs, independent of cancer cell growth….This study reveals that the contractile capsule actively compresses cancer cells, modulates their mechanical signaling, and reorganizes tumor morphology.” This research was conducted in the laboratory of Danijela Matic Vignjevic, and you can learn more about it at https://bit.ly/3skEIQZ.

Cellular Morphogenesis

The heart is the first organ to form in an embryo, and understanding how it forms could give insight into congenital heart diseases. Marga Albu is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research who is investigating atrial morphogenesis. During the Minisymposium “Subcellular and Tissue-scale Approaches to Morphogenesis,” Albu explained her observations of the behavior of atrial cardiomyocytes in zebrafish. Albu noted that these cells start out round, but as they develop into the tissue that forms the atrium, the cardiomyocytes begin to elongate and the cells overlap one another.  N-Cadherin-rich adhesions start to form where the neighboring cells touch. She found that membrane protrusions on the cardiomyocytes help guide cell shape and that canonical Wnt signaling regulates morphogenesis. She noted that these factors were different from the signals for morphogenesis that occur with the well-studied ventricular cardiomyocytes. Read more about Albu’s work at https://www.mpi-hlr.de/138417/Marga-Albu


Next-generation immunotherapies for cancer, such as immune checkpoint blockade and adoptive cell therapy treatment, have shown great promise in treating cancer, explained Sangwoo (Steven) Park from Cornell University during the Subgroup “Immune Cell Biology and Immunotherapy.” A problem arises when a thin coating of mucins forms a physical barrier around the cancer cells called the glycocalyx. The glycocalyx prevents immunotherapies from reaching cancer cells. Park also discovered that the thicker the glycocalyx barrier, the better it was able to kill immune cells. Using an engineered enzyme to digest the glycocalyx, Park said, they were able to “dramatically improve the efficiency of NK cell–mediated killing” of cancer cells, suggesting that therapies that target the degradation of “the biophysical structure of the cell-surface glycocalyx might improve the efficiency of immune therapeutics.” You can learn more about this work on the website of the Matthew Paszek Research Group, where Park is doing his graduate research: www.paszeklab.com.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.