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Virtual microbial talk

An international conference with some 230 participants from all over the world was held at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. In normal times this would not be big news, as the University of Jena is a regular meeting place for international guests but a three-day conference during the ongoing corona pandemic is indeed a challenge. The Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse" and the two Collaborative Research Centers "ChemBioSys" and "AquaDiva" have taken up this challenge and organized the "Microverse I — Joint International Symposium on Microbial and Biomolecular Interactions" as an online conference at the University of Jena together with the consortium "InfectControl".

Host Prof. Dr. Axel Brakhage, spokesperson of the Cluster of Excellence and Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Biology at the University of Jena, draws a positive conclusion: "The months of intensive preparation, the excellent support of the university's multimedia center and the top-class contributions of the invited researchers made the conference a resounding success. We are pleased that we were able to exchange the latest findings on microbial communication, environmental and host microbes in this online format".

Microorganisms protect plants and produce natural products

Twenty-nine speakers presented their research findings during the three days from September 1 to 3. Prof. Dr. Leo Eberl from the University of Zurich, for example, provided insights into his work on the role of a new class of signaling molecules controlling a devastating plant pathogen. Certain classes of bacterial signaling molecules have only recently received attention, including valdiazen. Among other things, it controls how genes are expressed. Eberl and his colleagues have shown that these signaling molecules attenuate the virulence of the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, which damages mango trees. This could be exploited as a natural product to protect such important agricultural crops.

Prof. Muriel Gugger from the Institute Pasteur in Paris talked about cyanobacteria as rich producers of natural products during the CRC ChemBioSys session on ‘Chemical mediators in complex biosystems’. These organisms are not only important oxygen producers but their genomes are also an as yet untapped source of natural substances with medical or industrial applications. Each session ended with meetings of the speakers in virtual meeting rooms where participants could discuss the research. In addition, 38 posters were presented in a virtual format.

One particular highlight were three round table discussions on the last day of the Microverse I symposium. Chairs and participants discussed opportunities for biotechnology based on new knowledge about microbial interactions and how microbiologists can learn from nature when they are searching for natural products and thus new drugs. During the third round table discussion scientists summarized the current advances and challenges when attempting to identify rare or functionally important microbes by metagenomics as well as bridging the gap between datasets from different types of omics technologies. “We had a really lively discussion with complementary opinions. This is much needed in times when the personal exchange between scientists from all over the world is limited,” says AquaDivas scientific assistant and future junior group leader in the Microverse Cluster Dr. Martin Taubert, who chaired one of the round table discussions.

Background: The Microverse I conference organizers

The Cluster of Excellence "Balance of the Microverse" investigates the complex interactions of microorganisms with other organisms and with their environment, which are of great significance for the functioning of ecosystems, our climate as well as the well-being of plants, animals and humans.

The CRC "ChemBioSys", which aims to explore fundamental regulatory processes in complex biosystems that affect our daily lives. The focus is on chemical mediators that play key roles in regulating the composition of communities and interactions of individual organisms of one or multiple species.

The CRC "AquaDiva" focuses on the important roles of water (Aqua) and biodiversity (Diva) for shaping the structure, properties and functions of the subsurface. This part of the Earth`s Critical Zone begins below the highest density of plant roots and extends down into the first aquifers.

"InfectControl" is a consortium in which science and industry have joined forces to fight infectious diseases. It aims to prevent infections in the long term, to detect them faster and to fight them consistently with innovative therapies. InfectControl also supports educational campaigns for vaccination and better awareness of the risks posed by infectious diseases.

Text: Alena Gold & Ute Schönfelder
Photos: Alena Gold & Angela Köhler