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Biological Sciences Division

August 2016

Near the End, ISME16 is Crowded and Energetic

Jansson Award
At ISME16, PNNL’s Janet Jansson presides over Thursday night’s plenary session. She is president of the International Society for Microbial Ecology.

Only one professional conference in the world could yield this tweet: "Let's chat about susceptibility of the human gut to Vibrio cholerae."

The comma-shaped bacterium that lives in salty water includes strains that cause cholera. But Vibrio cholerae drew attention at a more cheerful venue: This year's 16th international symposium on microbial ecology, hosted by the International Society for Microbial Ecology in Montreal, which ends Friday (Aug. 26). The society's current president, PNNL's Janet K. Jansson, was there, along with 14 other attendees from the laboratory.

The Aug. 22-26 gathering in the Canadian island city has so far included hours of plenary sessions, invited talks, roundtables, award ceremonies, and chatter about posters. Just over 500 were on display, giving (largely) younger researchers a way to strut their science stuff.

Thursday (Aug. 25) was the symposium's second-last day. From the perspective of most PNNL attendees, there was little official activity, in contrast to the talk-heavy first two days of the week. Microbiology group manager Vanessa Bailey did Thursday's sole PNNL honors at a podium, chairing her second soil microbial ecology session of the week.

A late morning tweet showed conference-goers packed in a corridor, lined up to go into Bailey's session. The event got a Twitter bounce from the Federation of European Microbiological Societies, promoting a thematic joint issue of their journals on the ecology of soil microorganisms.

Also on Thursday the last of the PNNL swag disappeared: 100 Smartphone microscopes that clip on over the phone's camera. They were available free at the joint ISME16 display booth put up by the Environmental and Molecular Sciences Laboratory, located on the PNNL campus, and the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.

With Jansson at the helm, the symposium drew more than 2,000 attendees from around the world - a number that one Thursday conference-goer tweeted "seems to have doubled today."

One reason may have been the day's lectures and roundtables. Researchers held forth on nitrification, gut pathogens, a giant novel virus from the deep sea floor, soil ecology, citizen science, the effect of climate change on maple syrup, and souring microbes in oil wells.

One much-tweeted talk was on the microbiome of moose rumen. It included a picture of one of the antlered Alces alces with a passageway cut from the outside into the animal's stomach, for purposes of painless study. "Behold, the fistulated moose!" tweeted Bailey. She called the session on rumen microbiomes (ideal for studying anoxic carbon degradation) "the most Canadian talk of the week."

The ISME16 Twittersphere on Thursday also included some popular observations, made in and out of talks. One researcher estimated that the Earth is inhabited by 1 trillion microbial species. Another had doubts about citizen science because "sometimes people say they're 6 inches tall." And many others repeated this nugget from one talk on fecal transplants (which mentioned a pill called "the crapsule"): It's hard to get enough fresh human poop for gut microbe experiments.

Or maybe ISME16 felt crowded Thursday because attendees were still energized by their day off on Wednesday. Mid-way through some conferences it's a tradition that attendees break away for local sightseeing and for collegial conversation in more casual settings.

So time-off tweets bloomed on Thursday, along with proof in pictures: hikes, favorite meals (one was hot dogs and poutine), public art in the island city, kayaking on the Lachine Canal, a culinary tour (which merited a picture of macaroons stacked in a bakery case), and many views of Montreal and the St. Lawrence flowing past. One such tweeted picture included a scientific note: "I sampled that river!"

But the sense that ISME16 felt crowded Thursday was most likely because of the day's true highpoint: the Tiedje Award Plenary Session, chaired by Jansson. In the spotlight was this year's award winner, Sallie W. "Penny" Chisholm, a biological oceanographer who has been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for four decades. She delivered an address that lit up the Twittersphere, "Tiny Cell, Global Impact: The Prochlorococcus Story."

Chisholm, who during the address related how she arrived at this signature microbe, has collaborated in spectacular discoveries regarding Prochlorococcus. This cyanobacterium is achingly tiny: just 1700 genes, 20 percent smaller than most algae, and about the size of the wavelength of light it absorbs in its solar-powered genome. It is also vastly abundant, sometimes accounting for half of the ocean's photosynthetic biomass. And oxygen-making Prochlorococcus is critical to the Earth's climate.

At MIT, Chisholm and her team investigate how oceanic microbes shape the marine environment, how they evolve, and how they influence global biogeochemical cycles. They are working on the bacterium as a model system for studying life across every scale of time and space.

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