Meeting Highlights

HealthHack Sydney 2015

Dr Kate Patterson participated in HealthHack 2015 last weekend at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Sydney, and here she tells us all about it:

This weekend I participated in HealthHack, a national product-building event that ran in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane from Friday evening through to Sunday.

On Friday night I pitched my ‘problem’ to a crowd of developers, user interface designers and software engineers in an attempt to build interest and a team that could work with me over the weekend.

With a focus on communicating science visually and engaging a broad audience in genomics and epigenomics research, I defined my problem as: create a prototype 3D game environment depicting the inside of the nucleus of a cell that can be adapted for virtual reality using the Oculus Rift.

What followed was an intense, team building and successful weekend, which ultimately culminated in us winning equal first prize for our solutions.

There were a few defining moments over the weekend that paved the way for a successful prototype. The first was deciding on two approaches and game engines in order to both to maximize the team’s skill sets and also to reach more audiences. We chose Unity for its rendering and animation capabilities, and Minecraft for its popularity and community aspect strengths. Once we worked out how to efficiently export an appropriate molecular model from Maya (the 3D environment I usually work with) to each of the game engines, the team worked on getting the controllers and functionality working smoothly.

By Sunday lunch time we had achieved three main things:   1) DNA and protein models imported into the two game engines,   2) Each of the games driven by appropriate controllers and  3) VR enabled. This was an exciting moment and the rest of Sunday afternoon was spent refining the games and preparing our final presentation.

HealthHack demonstrates how engaged development teams can work together to achieve great outcomes. In 48 hours we created two different prototypes that can now act as the catalyst for ongoing projects. I would definitely recommend researchers get involved in HealthHack 2016.

Photos courtesy of Kate Patterson, David Ma and ThoughtWorks

VIZBI 2015

Kenneth Sabir from the Garvan Institute in Sydney was at VIZBI 2015 and here he tells us all about it:

In March 2015, the BROAD Institute hosted the 6th VIZBI conference to a large number of attendees. Contrasting to other scientific conferences based on submissions, VIZBI’s speakers are invited and are hand picked based on their relevant research contribution and communication skills. This ensures a fascinating three days of presentations bringing experts in visualization together with the leaders in biology and bioinformatics tools, where the talks happen to be ordered by the physical scale of the topic: starting small with genomics and epigenetics, then transcriptomics, proteins, systems, then finally ending on the last day with tissues, metagenomics and populations.


John Stasko (Georgia Institute of Tech.) gave a great keynote on data visualisation principles, giving examples of how visualizing even existing public data can have a big impact (in this case, it was a student project that visualized the salaries of staff at his institute). Susan Clark (Garvan Institute of Medical Research) discussed the current challenges in understanding epigenomic data.

Jer Thorp’s (New York Times) keynote was a highlight, showcasing numerous projects he had worked on from diverse fields. He demonstrated that the current conventional assumptions on how to visualise a particular dataset, e.g. multidimensional features of shark genetics, may not be the most appropriate. Importantly, he showed examples of the value of interaction to reduce complexity for the user.

Dan Evanko (Nature Publishing Group), who is a familiar face at VIZBI, gave the final keynote about visualisation for scientific publication.  Overall, VIZBI 2015 was another success with engaging speakers and relevant tutorials, while also giving the opportunity for attendees to present at  the multiple lightning talks and poster sessions.

Keystone – DNA Methylation & Epigenomics

Earlier this year the Keystone Symposia hosted concurrent meetings on DNA Methylation and Epigenomics in Colorado. Dr Clare Stirzaker from the Garvan Institute was there, and she told us about some of the highlights for her.

Surrounded by the breathtaking Rocky Mountains, the DNA Methylation and Epigenomics meetings were held concurrently, with the opening address and a number of the sessions held jointly between the two meetings.

Adrian Bird (University of Edinburgh, UK) opened the meetings and discussed his work on DNA methylation – how DNA base composition plays an important role in determining the epigenome, and how DNA-binding proteins are attracted or repelled depending on methylation status. An example is DNA-binding protein MeCP2, which is highly abundant in the brain; mutations in the MECP2 gene cause the autistic spectrum disorder Rett syndrome. Adrian’s team has identified two critical regions of MeCP2 (the MBD and the NCoR-SMRT interaction domain) that determine the presence and severity of Rett Syndrome.

In the first joint session on Genome-Wide DNA methylation, a number of speakers discussed how epigenetics drives cell differentiation, and the role of chromatin marks and DNA methylation in this process:

Alexander Meissner (Harvard University, Broad Institute, USA) gave an overview of his laboratory’s studies on DNA methylation across development and disease. While most DNA methylation patterns in somatic tissues are static, and inherited through cell division in a highly regulated manner, in germ cells DNA methylation is much more dynamic. Alexander’s team knocked out DNA (cytosine-5)-methyltransferase 3A (DNMT3A) in differentiating embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and using WGBS showed that while the overall methylation pattern remained stable, distinct focal losses of methylation were observed at many sites, including genes such as Nanog and Foxa2. The cells, however, were still able to form tumours when injected into mice. Knockout of both DNMT3A and DNMT3B causes passage-dependent loss of DNA methylation, though at very slow rates. These models represent powerful tools to enhance the understanding of  DNA methylation in human development and disease.

Ryan Lister (University of Western Australia) addressed the general assumption that DNA methylation of promoters silences gene expression and described his team’s interrogation of thousands of human promoters by genome-wide manipulation using a zinc finger-DNMT3A fusion protein. 

In the Perturbations of DNA Methylation in Disease session, Margaret Goodell (Baylor College of Medicine, USA) discussed DNMT3A In normal and malignant hematopoiesis. DNMT3A mutations are associated with approximately 20 % of haematological malignancies, and research from Margaret’s laboratory has shown that hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) from DNMT3A KO mice have significantly reduced differentiation potential. DNMT3A KO mice all develop haematological malignancies within approximately 400 days, with pathological characteristics similar to those in patients with haematological malignancies, suggesting that they represent a good model for human disease.

Did you know?

Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology is a non-profit organisation, founded in 1972, with a mission to ‘serve as a catalyst for the advancement of biomedical and life sciences’. They currently hold 50-60 conferences a year, the majority of which are held in North America, though Keystone Symposia have been spreading to the rest of the globe in the last ten years, including Australia in 2009.

The HSCs studied had largely extended regions of low methylation (canyons) frequently containing transcription factors. The canyon borders were demarked by 5-hmC and become eroded in the absence of DNMT3A, suggesting that DNMT3A regulates canyon size. When TET2 (which converts 5-mC to 5-hmC) was knocked out, the spread of canyons was reduced. The balance between 5-mC and 5-hmC in the genome is a critical step for regulating gene expression to maintain cellular functions, and the action of Dnmt3a and Tet proteins at the same genomic sites may suggest that imbalance in either disrupts the broader regulatory mechanisms acting at these loci.

A number of very informative workshops were held between the two meetings:

ENCODE Datasets Tutorial

The goal of ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) is to build a comprehensive catalogue of functional elements in the human genome, and to provide high quality data and new technologies and analytical tools to for the scientific community. As speaker Bing Ren (University of California, San Diego, USA) put it: ‘Use the data, publish tomorrow, scoop us, but acknowledge us!’

Modeling DNA methylation 

Fabian Muller (Max Planck Institute for Informatics, Germany) described the upgraded RnBeads software package, a comprehensive and user-friendly analysis pipeline for large-scale DNA methylation datasets. Max and his colleagues have used RnBeads to characterize methylomes for the BLUEPRINT and DEEP projects.

Yaping Lie (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, USA) described meQTLFinder, a Bayesian model to detect meQTL, which greatly increases mdQTL detection power by using local chromatin states and long-range and chromatin interaction.

Roadmap Epigenomics Tutorial

This tutorial highlighted the resources generated by the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Project. To date, the Roadmap Epigenomics Consortium has characterized the 111 human epigenomes, which have been profiled for histone modification patterns, DNA accessibility, DNA methylation and RNA expression. The 2,805 genome-wide datasets comprise 150.2 billion sequencing reads, equivalent to 3,174x coverage of the human genome. This map will be of broad use to the scientific and biomedical communities, for studies of genome interpretation, gene regulation, cellular differentiation, genome evolution, genetic variation and human disease.

Tissues and cell types profiled to date: