Creating a storm, a revolution, to what we know about genes so far: an interview with GenStorm team

BIST Community Post

Marie Victoire Neguembor, Postdoctoral Fellow at CRG, leader of BIST Ignite project GenStorm

Pablo Dans Puiggros, Postdoctoral Fellow at IRB Barcelona, leader of BIST Ignite project GenStorm

1. Can you give a brief overview of your ignite project? (What is it about, who is involved, how long have you been working on the project, why is it important?)

VN: With our project, GENSTORM, we want to see and to model how genes are organised in 3D within the nucleus of our cells. As for anything that surrounds us, the shape of an object is important for its function. We believe, the same is true for genes. So we want to understand the shape of genes to understand how they work. But as you can imagine this is really difficult because genes are super super tiny and cannot be seen by eye. So we came out with a strategy to see the genes with a powerful microscope called STORM and to interpret what we see with advanced computational tools. On top of this we include many other sources of information about the genes we are interested in. In the end, we create a model of the gene, we can see its shape, its dynamics, its flexibility. We can virtually navigate inside a gene.

If you wish we want to create a STORM, a revolution, to what we know about GENes so far. This is important because it can provide us the clues to predict how aberrant gene shapes can lead to disease and hopefully to understand how to modulate the shape of genes to treat disease.

GENSTORM was born about 2 years and a half ago thanks to the support of BIST. It all started when we first got in touch to write the Ignite proposal 2016. We were among the first awardees and were very excited to get the project up and running. After a first year of work together the results were really promising and we applied for the second phase of the Ignite grant. This second phase allowed us to complete our project and is the base for the work we hope to continue in the future.
During this time the GENSTORM team grew a lot, we are a truly multidisciplinary, multinational team with members at every step of the scientific career.

PDD: I only want to add that our work also wanted to reach a new level in technologies integration, which is one of nowadays challenging in the field. High-resolution microscopy with innovative painting techniques, different genome-wide analyses, coarse-grain modelling and a pool of other computational tools all together to understand genes in Human cells.

2. How has the ignite project impacted your career so far? Has it given you opportunities that you otherwise would not have had as postdocs?

VN: The GENSTORM has been an incredible chance to design and coordinate a project. As a postdoc, this type of opportunities are rare and yet are extremely important to grow as a scientist. It was also the perfect setting to start an fantastic collaboration and to achieve goals that can only be achieved by working in a multidisciplinary team. It’s an experience I recommend to every BIST researcher.

PDD: As a senior postdoc in the computational group I was already co-directing a couple of PhD students in their projects, but the opportunity to coordinate the project with VN was incredible. I feel I’ve reached another level in my career. At the end of the second phase, we were coordinating a multidisciplinary group of 10 highly qualified researchers. The funding for two years was really important to consolidate the working group.

3. How has this programme impacted your research, your connections, and/or your future goals?

VN: The Ignite programme impacted a lot in my research, it gave me the possibility to get in touch with researchers across BIST institutes and abroad. It also created connections between Ignite projects. From a scientific point of view, with the GENSTORM project we created a solid base for future work in the field of gene architecture. We look forward to develop new projects and applications to our strategy.

PDD: In my case, the Ignite programme also had a huge impact on my research. I learned several different techniques that could be once considered somehow far from my expertise. The results presented in several congresses have received very positive criticisms, and now I’m joining a special sub-group of the Biophysical Society in the field of chromatin and chromosome 3D conformation. Gene architecture is now one of the research lines of my new laboratory in Uruguay.

4. What kind of visibility has the ignite programme given you and your research? (E.g. opportunity to present your research at conferences, media interviews, etc.)

VN: We had the chance to present our project in many conferences including the BIST conference 2018 and international conferences like EMBO. Also, we had the great opportunity to introduce our project at the BIST patronato, having the chance to explain our work directly to the directors of BIST institutes and the members of the scientific board. In all occasions, we got valuable feedback and encouragement. The visibility of GENSTORM went much further than we ever thought, Pablo has been even interviewed by a newspaper in Uruguay, his home country.

PDD: After presenting our results in a very specialized congress this year (2019) in France, I was invited to join the sub-group of the Biophysical Society I just mentioned, and yes, VN is right, I was interviewed in Uruguay. Here the link (only spanish): https://www.google.com/amp/s/ciencia.ladiaria.com.uy/articulo/2019/2/matrix-adn-y-biofisica-computacional/%3fdisplay=amp

5. Do you have a specific success story about the project? For example, has it led to particularly fruitful scientific results or collaborations? Or has it inspired you to pursue a new kind of path in your career? Or perhaps it has helped you to realize something new about yourself or your abilities?

VN: I think for us GENSTORM is our success story because we built it from scratch, we didn’t know each other when we started, we didn’t know exactly where the project would bring us because it was very challenging and risky and after less than three years we are an amazing team of 10 people, wrapping up our first story together.

PDD: The work from the GENSTORM team was presented in several international congresses, in most of them has oral presentations. We always got very positive criticisms, and now we are writing our first article and it will be a good one (smile).

6. Do you have any funny stories to share about the project or the project team? Did something surprising perhaps happen that was not part of the plan?

VN: Perhaps something funny is that by pure chance our team is 90% international and in particular 50% South American, we realised it only when we first met and noticing our peculiar accents. Now beside science, we exchange advice on where to find the best alfajores or dulce de leche. This is probably an example of how multicultural BIST institutes are.

PDD: There are even more coincidences. VN and I went to highschools of the same international network in French, and we both have roots in Uruguay and Argentina. We discover this a couple of months after starting the GENSTORM team.

7. Is there anything else you would like to share?

VN: If you are curious about science, about what we do in the lab, don’t be shy. You are very welcome to join the many events BIST institutes do throughout the year.

PDD: If I would get the chance to revive the last 3 years, I would present again a proposal with VN to the Ignite Grant. I regret nothing and enjoyed everything single moment up to now.

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