This weekend I was fortunate to be one of fifty microbiologists at the first @ASM meeting: a new conference format held at the headquarters of the American Society of Microbiology in Washington, D.C. Not only was this the first @ASM meeting – it was also the first ASM Conference on Mechanisms of Interbacterial Cooperation and Competition, or effectively (as noted by many of the participants): sociomicrobiology.
Each and every talk was truly excellent, but of course I did have some favorites, biased no doubt by my own interests:
- Both Peter Greenberg and Kevin Foster presented a broad context for the concept of sociomicrobiology, as it is developing into a new science. Peter Greenberg framed his talk around quorum sensing, while Kevin Foster is doing some amazing work from the perspective of the evolution of social behaviors and particularity in the application of computational modeling of biofilm formation. In many ways microbes are ideal organisms for empirically testing the first principles of social interactions.
- Susanne Mueller, a research scientist from the Kirby Lab at the University of Iowa, gave a fascinating talk based on two recent papers on Myxococcus/Bacillus interactions. B. subtilis forms a newly discovered form of biofilm called the megastructure only in response to Myxo predation. Megastructures are filled with spores and are not dependent on the same genes involved in colony biofilm formation, suggesting a unique mixture of unknown matrix components.
- Elizabeth Shank presented work from her group at the University of North Carolina, advancing previous studies visualizing matrix expression and unique functional cell types in B. subtilis biofilms. She has shown that matrix expression in B. subtilis can be triggered by other sympatric species: induced by particular metabolites (for example, Thiocillin).
- Paul Straight’s talk on chemical interfaces between Streptomyces and B. subtilis colony biofilms included some great photographs. His work shows that two colony biofilms grown adjacent to each other are engaged in a complex exchange of chemical information.
- There were also many talks on type VI secretion systems (T6SS; by and large the major theme of the conference): a mechanism for effector secretion that is structurally homologous to bacteriophage components. These began with a great keynote talk by John Mekalanos, whose group discovered T6SS in 2006. It was amazing to see how such a transformative discovery can open up an entire field in less than a decade.
- Harry Mobley discussed the history of swarming in Proteus mirabilis, in what was a very informative but also very entertaining talk (I think he gets the award for most laughter). He focused on the formation of Dienes lines between successive layers of swarming cells in this species, and how these characteristic boundary layers are now known to be mediated by T6SS.
Based on the success of this meeting, plans for the next ASM sociomicrobiology meeting are already underway. It remains to be determined whether the conference will be expanded in size, or left at the extremely small 50 person level. I can say that 50 people was very nice; I met essentially everyone, and the poster session was excellent: incomparable to the field of posters at the general meeting.