BSDB Meeting Report: 70th Anniversary Spring Meeting

This year, is the BSDB’s 70th anniversary, and this was clearly reflected at our Spring Meeting, 15-18 April 2018 in Warwick! Apart from an outstanding speaker list, and the award of most BSDB medals & prizes of 2018, we saw a very special event with many extras, as is well described here by Dillan Saunders. Dillan undertook his BSc Honours with Michael Akam studying centipedes, is currently performing his MSc in the lab of Megan Davey date-mapping the developing limb bud of chick with novel transgenic technologies.  and will be returning to Cambridge later this year to begin The Wellcome Trust Developmental Biology PhD program. Dillan’s blog post aligns with a long-standing tradition of the BSDB to engage young members (see our archive blog), and we strongly encourage PhD students and postdocs to make their voice heard by writing reports or articles for our website and newsletter.


The British Society for Developmental Biology (BSDB) recently held its annual Spring Meeting at the University of Warwick. This was no ordinary meeting, though it is fair to say that BSDB meetings rarely are. This Spring Meeting celebrated the 70th anniversary of the BSDB and did so excellently, birthday cakes and all. With a retrospective look at the past of the society, and fantastic speakers showcasing present and ongoing work, the stage was set for a meeting that not only celebrated a strong history, but also looked forward, critically yet hopefully, to the future of Developmental Biology and of the BSDB itself.

The conference began with a career workshop for students and post-docs (see our blog post). In keeping with the celebration of the BSDB’s birthday, the focus of the workshop was on staying in academia. A variety of speakers and other group leaders fielded questions and shared details of the personal journeys to have brought them to their current positions. I had the opportunity to speak to Henrik Semb – whose example shows that not everyone follows a straight, let alone predictable, career trajectory. Judith Kimble shared her views on not seeing the lab as a place of work, and finally I got to hear Ottoline Leyser’s thoughts on work-life balance; a phrase which misleadingly implies that the two are opposed to one another. It would however be in our best interests, she explained, to see work and life as overlapping and complementary to one another.

The career workshop

After the careers workshop came the first plenary talk, in which Eric Wieschaus explained his recent work on mesoderm invagination in Drosophila and how one transcriptional activation can lead to a sequence of events (Weng and Wieschaus, 2017). Thematically paired with this talk was Maria Leptin’s plenary lecture, in which she discussed the development of in silico models for actin dynamics in order to recapitulate mesoderm invagination (Belmonte et al., 2017).

Emilia receives the Beddington medal from Simon Bullock

Following a short break, the Beddington Medal was awarded to Emily Favuzzi for the best PhD thesis in Developmental Biology of the year, which she performed on the transcriptional networks at play during interneuron development (see our blog post). She then gave a talk that illustrated how meticulous and comprehensive her work was (Favuzzi et al., 2017). This was followed up by a plenary talk from Marianne Bronner on the transcriptional networks of specific populations of neural crest cells, with attention to how her work with lampreys shows that the neural crest has acquired additional functions in the jawed vertebrates (Green et al., 2017). Unfazed by technical difficulties with the final slides of the presentation, Bronner took on the role of the lamprey and humorously indicated on herself the location of the neural crest cells.

The evening was capped off by three events that celebrated the history, and looked into the future, of the BSDB and Developmental Biology as a whole. First, came two talks from historians of science, Nick Hopwood and Tim Horder. Hopwood’s talk detailed the story of the crystallization of modern Developmental Biology in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. He described how the London Embryologists Club began in 1948 and how it then broadened both its geographical location and the field that it represented to form the BSDB (see also our archive blog).

Nick Hopwood’s lecture about DB’s history

Off the back of the historians’ view of the past, came a panel discussion of the future of the field. The panel was made up of Ottoline Leyser, James Briscoe, Maria Leptin, Jonathan Slack, Judith Kimble and Patrick Lemaire. They fielded several thought-provoking questions from the audience, which led to a lively discussion. As might be expected from a big anniversary meeting, there was much reminiscing on the early days of molecular Developmental Biology in the 1980s, often referred to as the ‘Golden Age.’ When asked what made this era such an exciting time for Developmental Biology, Jonathan Slack noted that it was a time when developmental biologists were becoming dissatisfied with the explanations of the previous heyday of embryology in the 1930s.

In the subsequent discussion, Ottoline Leyser pointed out that, what with the advent of new technologies and ideas, we are in fact in the midst of a golden age for Developmental Biology. Indeed, though there are still some who believe that certain areas of Developmental Biology hold no more secrets, recent years have shown new developments in, for example, the study of the anterior-posterior axis in Drosophila (Clark and Akam, 2016) and the C. elegans cell lineage (Sammut et al., 2015).

Other points of discussion included the importance of studying development within the context of time and the great potential of computational modelling. Discussed also were the logistics of maintaining an idea of the overall picture without becoming too focused on a single model system. The final event of the day was an informal round table discussion where the points raised previously, and many others, were discussed at length over much wine.

Monday began with a plenary talk from Matthew Freeman, amusingly titled ‘Confessions of an ex-developmental biologist’, in which he described his current focus on cell signalling and the pertinence of Cell Biology to the understanding of development (e.g. Christova et al., 2013). Following this, the two morning sessions covered ‘TISSUE AND ORGAN DEVELOPMENT’ and ‘DEVELOPMENTAL GENE REGULATORY NETWORKS.’ I listened to James Briscoe’s talk on the Sonic Hedgehog morphogen gradient in the neural tube and the interesting mathematical models that his lab has used to explore the time and precision of its patterning. Virginia Papaioannou then spoke about the role of Tbx6 in left-right axis establishment (Concepcion et al., 2017).

Also in this session were complementing talks from Eileen Furlong (Mikhaylichenko et al., 2018) and Mike Levine (Lim et al., 2018) on the relationships between enhancers and promoters and how chromatin architecture regulates gene expression. After a lunch poster session, the afternoon sessions began with talks on ‘MECHANISMS OF GLOBAL GENE REGULATION’ and ‘CELL BIOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENT’. That afternoon, I caught a talk by Robb Krumlauf, in which he showed some fascinating lamprey experiments which supplied further detail on the ancient interactions between retinoic acid and Hox genes. Following this, Caroline Telfer demonstrated her impressive quantity of PhD work on the upstream regulation of the GATA genes, and then Pavel Tomancak showed a combination of beautiful live imaging and computational models for serosa closure in Tribolium castaneum embryos. The day’s closing plenary lecture was given by Janet Rossant, which included her work on dramatically increasing CRISPR efficiency in early mouse blastocysts.

The highlight of this first evening was the announcement of the Waddington Medal and the Waddington Lecture. The most prestigious prize awarded by the BSDB, the Waddington Medal recognises an individual who has made major contributions to developmental biology in the UK. The recipient of the award is, by tradition, kept a secret until the president of the society awards the medal. Ottoline Leyser introduced the awardee of the medal, after a short bit of suspense and the interesting insight that the last three winners of the prize have been accomplished artists. The medal was awarded to Richard Gardner for his pioneering work on various aspects of early mouse development from clonal lineage analysis and transplantation to axis determination (see our blog post).

In his subsequent lecture, Richard Gardner detailed some of the highlights of his impressive career, punctuated by humorous anecdotes and intriguing details. For instance, he commented on the four passions of Sydney Smith (who taught Gardner at university): Darwin, embryology, Ming dynasty porcelain, and wine (most developmental biologists can relate to at least three). Gardner also acknowledged his students, his mentor Robert Edwards, and collaborators such as Mary Lyon and Martin Johnson.

After the Waddington lecture, was the student and post-doc social in which we were split into teams to create a development-themed piece of art. An hour of glitter, glue, and coloured card later, the products of our endeavours included a model of Waddington’s epigenetic landscape, an interactive and moving model of chick somite formation, and the winning entry, a performance piece showing the injection of labelled cells into a blastocyst.

On Tuesday morning, the opening plenary lecture was given by Sean Carroll. In a similar vein to Matthew Freeman, he described how pursuing his boyhood passion for snakes led him away from developmental biology and to interesting work on the evolution of proteins in snake venom.  I then attended the ‘EVO-DEVO’ session in the morning, which ran parallel to ‘STEM CELLS AND REGENERATION’. In this session, I listened to many fascinating talks, which included Patrick Lemaire, on his computer models of ascidian cell fate determination, Karen Sears on the development of several unique aspects of bat morphology, and Miltos Tsiantis on the evolution of leaf form and the identification of a key regulator of leaf shape (Vuolo et al., 2016). Finishing off the session, Peter Holland covered his group’s work on the ParaHox gene, Pdx, in a variety of different bilaterian species.

A second lunch poster session followed, and then the afternoon programming kicked into gear. These were talks grouped under the themes of ‘POSITIONAL INFORMATION’ and ‘CELL FATE’. In the former, Lee Niswander gave a talk on neural tube closure defects (Li et al., 2018), and in the latter, Olivier Pourquie spoke about the importance of using cell culture and iPSCs, which his lab used to generate human pre-somitic mesoderm-like cells. In a talk that very much followed the themes of the conference, James Sharpe acknowledged the 50th  anniversary of Lewis Wolpert’s proposal of the French Flag Problem and re-interpreted the potential solutions to the problem through his data indicating that digits are patterned by a Turing mechanism (Green and Sharpe, 2015).

The final order of business for the day was the BSDB’s annual general meeting. This was an interesting insight into the inner workings of the society, which involved the election of new members to the committee and the presentation of committee officers’ reports.

After the wrap up of the AGM was the conference dinner and party. This was a celebration worthy of marking 70 years of the BSDB – complete with balloons, good food, and plenty of wine. The dinner was topped off with cake, cut by four former presidents of the BSDB.

Also announced were the winners of the post-doc and PhD poster prizes (see our blog post), as well as the winners of the advocacy writing competition, which was initiated specifically for the 70th anniversary of the BSDB and saw submissions from students and post-docs on the history and future of the BSDB (see our blog post). Fuelled by the great atmosphere, and likely a bit of wine, the dancing began. It was a great experience to see everyone, at all career stages, let loose and enjoy themselves. Particularly popular were the Developmental Biology-themed raps, written and performed by Jerry aka Gerald H Thomsen PhD, and produced and mixed by Philip Larsen. Overall, it was an excellent and celebratory evening.

Gerald Thomsen, Josh Brickman and Philip Larsen

Rap 1: BSDB History (part I & II)

Rap 2: Morphogen Mix


The final morning of the meeting began with a plenary lecture from Ottoline Leyser. She spoke about her work with the plant hormone strigolactone, and its role in regulating the plasticity of branching, and the self-organising auxin network in plants (Ligerot et al., 2017).The enthralling lecture was enough to make anyone want to become a plant biologist. This was followed by two further plenary lectures from Connie Eaves, on the early haematopoietic cell lineage in humans (Sawai et al., 2016), and Edith Heard, on the role of X-chromosome chromatin architecture and its relationship to Xist and X-inactivation (Galupa and Heard, 2018). Then the Cheryll Tickle Medal was awarded to Christiana Ruhrberg (see our blog post) by Cheryll Tickle herself. The Cheryll Tickle Medal is given to a mid-career, female scientist for her outstanding achievements in developmental biology. Christiana Ruhrberg then gave a great lecture on her scientific career so far.

Of particular interest to me was how Ruhrberg neatly combined her early career work in neurogenesis and vasculogenesis to form the focus and direction of her group as a PI, working on the interplay between these two processes. Nicely linking in with the historical theme of the meeting, Ruhrberg noted that she was the first to have ever seen the current BSDB logo (which shows the progression of embryonic development), as the creator of the logo, Jeff Christiansen, was staying at her house when he designed it (see our blog post). The final lecture of the meeting was given by John Gurdon, on the stability and reversal of gene expression in development.

This was my first BSDB meeting and it was overall an excellent experience. It showcased cutting-edge science and a great community, the strength of which was demonstrated by the creation of a scientific genealogy, which used pins and thread to plot mentor and mentee relationships as part of a huge interconnected network of developmental biologists.

Weaving pedigree networks: Eric Wieschaus, David Ish-Horowicz, Claudio Stern, Austin Smith

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the BSDB for the conference grant that enabled me to attend. The meeting gave me a new appreciation for the history of Developmental Biology and strengthened my excitement to be a part of its future. Here’s to the next 70 years of the BSDB!


Note: where possible published work relevant to the text has been cited.

  • Belmonte, J. M., M. Leptin and F. Nedelec (2017). “A theory that predicts behaviors of disordered cytoskeletal networks.” Mol Syst Biol 13(9): 941.
  • Christova, Y., C. Adrain, P. Bambrough, A. Ibrahim and M. Freeman (2013). “Mammalian iRhoms have distinct physiological functions including an essential role in TACE regulation.” EMBO Rep 14(10): 884-890.
  • Clark, E. and M. Akam (2016). “Odd-paired controls frequency doubling in Drosophila segmentation by altering the pair-rule gene regulatory network.” Elife 5.
  • Concepcion, D., A. J. Washkowitz, A. DeSantis, P. Ogea, J. I. Yang, N. C. Douglas and V. E. Papaioannou (2017). “Cell lineage of timed cohorts of Tbx6-expressing cells in wild-type and Tbx6 mutant embryos.” Biol Open 6(7): 1065-1073.
  • Favuzzi, E., A. Marques-Smith, R. Deogracias, C. M. Winterflood, A. Sanchez-Aguilera, L. Mantoan, P. Maeso, C. Fernandes, H. Ewers and B. Rico (2017). “Activity-Dependent Gating of Parvalbumin Interneuron Function by the Perineuronal Net Protein Brevican.” Neuron 95(3): 639-655 e610.
  • Galupa, R. and E. Heard (2018). “Topologically Associating Domains in Chromosome Architecture and Gene Regulatory Landscapes during Development, Disease, and Evolution.” Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol.
  • Green, J. B. and J. Sharpe (2015). “Positional information and reaction-diffusion: two big ideas in developmental biology combine.” Development 142(7): 1203-1211.
  • Green, S. A., B. R. Uy and M. E. Bronner (2017). “Ancient evolutionary origin of vertebrate enteric neurons from trunk-derived neural crest.” Nature 544(7648): 88-91.
  • Li, H., J. Zhang, S. Chen, F. Wang, T. Zhang and L. Niswander (2018). “Genetic contribution of retinoid-related genes to neural tube defects.” Hum Mutat 39(4): 550-562.
  • Ligerot, Y., A. de Saint Germain, T. Waldie, C. Troadec, S. Citerne, N. Kadakia, J. P. Pillot, M. Prigge, G. Aubert, A. Bendahmane, O. Leyser, M. Estelle, F. Debelle and C. Rameau (2017). “The pea branching RMS2 gene encodes the PsAFB4/5 auxin receptor and is involved in an auxin-strigolactone regulation loop.” PLoS Genet 13(12): e1007089.
  • Lim, B., T. Heist, M. Levine and T. Fukaya (2018). “Visualization of Transvection in Living Drosophila Embryos.” Mol Cell 70(2): 287-296 e286.
  • Sammut, M., S. J. Cook, K. C. Q. Nguyen, T. Felton, D. H. Hall, S. W. Emmons, R. J. Poole and A. Barrios (2015). “Glia-derived neurons are required for sex-specific learning in C. elegans.” Nature 526(7573): 385-390.
  • Sawai, C. M., S. Babovic, S. Upadhaya, D. Knapp, Y. Lavin, C. M. Lau, A. Goloborodko, J. Feng, J. Fujisaki, L. Ding, L. A. Mirny, M. Merad, C. J. Eaves and B. Reizis (2016). “Hematopoietic Stem Cells Are the Major Source of Multilineage Hematopoiesis in Adult Animals.” Immunity 45(3): 597-609.
  • Vuolo, F., R. A. Mentink, M. Hajheidari, C. D. Bailey, D. A. Filatov and M. Tsiantis (2016). “Coupled enhancer and coding sequence evolution of a homeobox gene shaped leaf diversity.” Genes Dev 30(21): 2370-2375.
  • Weng, M. and E. Wieschaus (2017). “Polarity protein Par3/Bazooka follows myosin-dependent junction repositioning.” Dev Biol 422(2): 125-134.


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