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A chilling end to SDB 2008

Harry Eastlack looked like any other baby when he was born in Philadelphia in 1933, save for an inward-turned big toe, but at age ten, he developed a swelling and stiffness in his neck and back. The group of Philadelphia doctors that treated Harry would soon discover that the soft tissues of his body including muscles and cartilage were slowly, painfully transforming into bone, twisting and fusing the young man’s body until his death at age 40. His plight is known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), and it’s caused by an autosomal dominant mutation, usually arising de novo in 2 out of every million people. In the last talk at the 2008 Society for Developmental Biology meeting in Philadelphia, Eileen Shore from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine talked about her work from bedside to bench with children with FOP.  Read more

Testes all over at SDB 2008

I once had an English teacher who gave copious quizzes. Once, when someone complained about the work, he replied, “If you think my quizzes are bad you should see my testes.” It was an all-boys Catholic school, which explains how he could get away wish such crude sentiments. Nevertheless, I saw a talk about an organism that would put him and his abundant quizzes to the shame he deserves. The planarian, a flat, freshwater dwelling worm with comical eyespots and a superlative reputation for regeneration has another surprise under its belt. In addition to two ovaries just south of its tiny brain, the sexual form of some planarians has dozens of testes spread throughout its body.  Read more

Before the rain at SDB 2008

Just before a violent downpour at Philadelphia’s UPenn campus, I got to chat with Society for Developmental Biology president Eric Wieschaus of Princeton University. (An aside: His quirky sense of humour set a nice tone at the opening symposium last night. When the powerpoint presentation he was working off of broke down, he admitted “My lab doesn’t let me get too close to machines.” Later clarifying: “I’m allowed near the microscopes, just not the ones with moving parts.”). He told me he didn’t quite have the clarity of thought to offer me any overarching trends in development in general or at the meeting in particular.  Read more

At SDB 2008: the same, but different

Most have abandoned Haeckel’s old chestnut that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, but when two organisms actually appear to have identical embryonic development, how close are the genetic programs that underlie each. In a wide ranging symposium on evolutionary genetics at the Society for Developmental Biology 67th annual meeting, Itai Yanai from Craig Hunter’s lab at Harvard looked at two nematode worms that are practically indistinguishable, the lab workhorse Caenorhabditis elegans and Caenorhabditis briggsae from which it diverged some 80 to 100 million years ago. Evolutionarily, that puts them about as distant as humans and mice, but morphologically they’re practically indistinguishable. So, what can Yanai say about how these organisms use those different genes during what he calls the “200 most exciting minutes in the life of the worm”?  Read more

At Society of Developmental Biology 2008: “What the heck is a YFome?”

The opening symposium for the 67th annual Society of Developmental Biology meeting was held in the Irvine Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. The cavernous auditorium is quite ornate with a massive pipe organ lining the front wall and arresting décor and proportions. Still more arresting was a word several slides into a talk on development and genomics by Joseph Ecker of The Salk Institue. He presented a list of ‘ome words like Proteome (cataloguing proteins), Promoterome (developing lists of DNA promoters), Phenome (cataloguing of phenotypes), Orfeome (catalogue of open reading frames), and more. But several in the hall were mumbling “What the heck is a YFome?” Before moving on to the next slide, Ecker shed some light on the mystery. Since someone invariably accuses him of missing some area of study he said, he added “Your Favourite ‘Ome.”  … Read more