Full house for genomics symposium
Concordia’s new Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics (CSFG) recently hosted a symposium covering a broad spectrum of genomics research underway in labs across the city and Eastern Canada. The event, entitled Integrative Genomics: From Microbes to Humans, attracted a capacity crowd of students and researchers, many of whom praised the quality of the speakers.
“These are the top researchers in Canada, and it was really great to hear what their groups are doing,” said Concordia graduate student Travis Dawson. “It was really interesting to see where the field of genomics is headed. I read about this stuff all the time, and then to see these people I’ve read about give lectures is great.”
Concordia biology professors David Walsh, Michael Sacher and Selvadurai Dayanandan organized the event. Walsh said he was very happy with the turnout and the quality of the talks. “We were celebrating the centre’s new facilities, but the idea was to introduce Concordia University to a lot of other people in Montreal and the area who are actually doing genomic science,” he said. “The turnout and the interest was great, and I think we’re probably going to try to do this yearly now.”
Some of the symposium’s nine speakers examined very specific applications of genomics. McGill University Professor Tomi Pastinen, for example, explained his research around using population variations to dissect human gene regulation. Concordia was represented among the speakers by CSFG Director Adrian Tsang, who made a presentation on the application of fungal genomics for the future production of biofuels.
But there were also more broad discussions of the science behind genomes. Notable biochemist W. Ford Doolittle from Dalhousie University retraced the history of microbial genomics, and showed how the enormous amount of data being collected is challenging commonly held understandings of species, evolution and the fundamentals of microbiology.
“He started with a historical perspective and then went into how it’s changing and how he anticipates the whole field could change in the future,” Dawson said. “It’s really interesting to hear someone who’s been working in the field for decades make predictions about the future of metagenomics.”
Josine Lafontaine, an undergraduate biology student at Concordia, said she was particularly fascinated by McGill Professor Moshe Szyf’s talk entitled DNA Methylation – a Mechanism for Genome Adaptation.
“Basically, he talked about how the genes that get expressed can be influenced by things that are societal or chemical. And then in turn your genes can also effect you in the opposite direction; your chemistry and your sociological position.”
Lafontaine said she was aware of the concept beforehand and does not question the science behind it, but she does wrestle with the implications for society.
“It can lead to a ‘blame the victim’ situation,” she said. “When you look at somebody who’s not adapting well, who’s struggling in society, and you say well, if they had enough willpower, their DNA would be better, and they’d be a better person in a certain sense. That’s the larger implication of it.”
Undergraduate ecology student Phil Thibert said he decided to attend the symposium because he believes that genomics will serve as a valuable tool for studying ecological communities.
“The field of genomics is very new, and just like the computer industry it’s growing really, really fast. We’re on the verge of this whole new dimension of learning and understanding in this field, and it’s really exciting,” he said.
Sitting through nine scientific presentations in one day is tough for even the most dedicated minds, but Dawson said it was well worth the effort.
“I had about four coffees during the day to keep me going, but it was a great time,” he said smiling. “This was my first conference, and I really think it was a learning experience.”
• More on the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
• “Researchers praise new genomics centre” — NOW, November 9, 2011