With plans underway for the 2017 institute-wide annual retreat, read the highlights of Retreat 2016 below, and watch the video. If you have suggestions for venues for future retreats, contact Alessandra Lisini.

By Susan Watts

“Just keep on doing your best science, and your bravest science”. Institute director, Amanda Fisher, set the tone at the start of the CSC’s day-long retreat at the Royal Society on Friday 20 May 2016. Retreat, however, may not be the right word. This felt more like advance.

The day began with a “thank you”. The past few years had been a time of rapid change for science in the UK, and a tough time for everyone at the CSC, professor Fisher said. But with the institute reaching the end of its latest five-year review and about to enter a new chapter, her message for the future was positive. And the talks that followed revealed not only the broad portfolio of science underway at the institute, but also the excitement of everyone involved.

Boris Lenhard kicked-off, with a talk on the “mystery of extreme non-coding conservation”, the strange fact that so many species share the same stretches of DNA and yet these appear not to do very much, or do they?

Peter Sarkies described “dark passengers”, transposable elements in our genetic code, which switch from one location in the genome to another, discovered by Barbara McClintock in the 1940s. Sarkies said these resemble the television character Dexter Morgan who conducts a secret, darker life as well as his day-job. He’s trying to understand how these transposons evolved, and how exactly they’re regulated, by studying their action in a variety of species of worm.

Colleague, Mathew van de Pette voted this his favourite talk of the day. “We found out that what are thought to be exceptionally important mechanisms that regulate epigenetic marks have very little conservation among very similar species. And how that system has evolved over time is very surprising. Once people have decided that something’s’ important, it’s assumed that every organism must do it the same way, and we’re finding out more and more that that’s not the case.”

Mathew van de Pette updated the audience on his own work, the impact of a low-protein diet on subsequent generations in mouse models. He described research in his group on the development of mouse models that show potential as new ways to explore the interactions between drugs and our bodies. “We’re looking at the way that diet and drugs can have an influence on whole body physiology, and particularly how they may influence a small group of genes which are very, very important in embryonic development”

Peter Sarkies had his own favourite moment. “I was particularly interested in was the talk from Boris Lenhard, which was focussing on ultra-conserved non-coding elements in genomes. These are sequences of DNA which over millions of years have exactly the same sequence and more or less the same position within the genome. So for example we find them in exactly the same position in the fish genome and the human genome, and yet their exact function is not totally obvious. From the point of view of someone like me who’s interested in evolution it’s completely counterintuitive – and the work that he’s doing to characterise that is extremely interesting.”

The schedule continued with Simona Parrinello on understanding how our nerve cells regenerate after accident or disease; Jean-Baptiste Vannier on the clocks inside our cells with competing roles in both ageing and keeping tumours at bay; and postdoc Ziwei Liang, who focussed on gene-silencing by a protein called Ikaros.

Liz Ing-Simmons, a PhD student at the institute, said this was her favourite talk: “It’s nice to see someone looking at the dynamics of a process.”

Buhe Nashun described the role of a protein called Hira in ensuring that the DNA in our cells is stored correctly; Oliver Howes talked about the latest routes to possible drug treatment for psychosis, and Susumu Hirabayashi on how a chance discovery in the lab led him to explore the links between metabolism and tumours in cancer. Angela Woods described the interplay between the sugars we eat and a protein called AMPK, which might prove useful in tackling fatty liver disease and cancer. Chain-Florey clinical lecturer, Julie Glanville, described her work on cells of the immune system, called T-cells, which are involved in suppressing HIV. Some T-cells may be more efficient killers than others. Understanding how might enable design of optimal T-cells to fight cancer.

In the mid-afternoon, Christian Speck updated delegates on progress by the CSC/ICS towards an Athena SWAN Silver award, following success in obtaining the Bronze award in 2014. The CSC’s PhD representative, Alexander (Sasha) Esin, and postdoc representative, Rahuman Sheriff, summarised initiatives in their communities over the past year.

Speck explained that the CSC/ICS has begun an institute-wide mentorship scheme, and announced new annual Mentoring Awards to “recognise the importance and value of effective mentoring at all stages of one’s career”. Inaugural awards went to Nuria Ferrandiz-Diaz, a postdoc in “Fadri” Martinez-Perez’s Meiosis group, and Petra Hajkova, who leads the Reprogramming and Chromatin group. Both were recognised for the tangible and significant difference their mentoring had made to life for their mentees – the researchers at the CSC who nominated them.

The closing talk of the day was by Jason Chin of the MRC-Laboratory of Molecular Biology, on “Re-programming the genetic code”. His wide-ranging lecture explored a variety of methods under development in his lab to alter the genetic code of living organisms by incorporating artificial “designer” code into existing proteins in cells.

Overall, Retreat 2016 was deemed a welcome chance to take stock. “It’s definitely a good idea because a lot of the time we don’t hear about what other people in the Institute are working on, especially new group leaders who have just joined us recently and so maybe haven’t had a paper come out,” said Liz Ing-Simmons. “It’s a really good opportunity to hear what they’re working on and what they’re planning for the future. That’s why I really liked coming just before I started my PhD… it was a really nice way to be introduced to what’s going on here and who everyone was before I got started.”

Peter Sarkies agreed: “You don’t often get to appreciate the scale of the science that’s going on – you get bogged down in your own world and it’s really nice just to step back. It’s actually invigorating to hear that everyone else is facing the same day-to-day struggles.”

Andre Brown saw other advantages: “Probably the main benefit is having the whole CSC together. Since we’re spread right now over a couple of buildings, we run into each other but maybe not as frequently as we should – and to have all of the science in one place at the same time is really valuable.” Brown also valued the combination of the talks and posters, which he said helped to put the Institute’s science into context “because it’s really diverse, and it’s nice to see things side-by-side.”

PhD student, Athena Georgilis, was awarded the Rosa Beddington prize for the best poster. “I’m very happy about it, and I’m very grateful that people recognise my work. I really like the environment – it’s a bit laid back, and people can talk about things in an informal way. There’s no pressure and you can actually discuss science, I really like that – that’s the feeling I got during the poster session and during the talks.”

Closing thanks went to Tobias Warnecke and David Rueda, who organised the day’s events, and to Alessandra Lisini for her valued support.