What’s Hot in the Microbial Sciences: World Microbe Forum Ed.

June 29, 2021

When the concept of a global meeting for microbiologists finally became a reality, from June 20-24, 2021, the World Microbe Forum truly exceeded expectations. As participants sat in the comfort of their homes listening to, sharing science and networking with peers in all different stages of their careers, covering research from every sub-specialty in the microbial sciences and representing over 120 countries around the world, it was a beautiful demonstration that, like microbes, the microbial sciences community knows no borders.

For those who respect and are committed to studying the diversity and power of microbial life—for better or worse—it is a distinctly pivotal time to be a microbiologist, and World Microbe Forum quickly became an organic celebration of perseverance, unity and hope. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt far and wide, and although isolation was a significant by-product of the pandemic, World Microbe Forum served as a welcome and timely reminder of just how connected we are by the microbes and shared passions that bind us.

Microbes are everywhere. They touch everything and everyone, a fact no more aptly reinforced than by the robust 24-hour programming of this international event. The meeting, which was hosted by 9 collaborating microbiology societies, offered a unique virtual experience, featuring 600+ scientific sessions and over 3,000 abstract submissions. The roster of representative microbes was extensive, including viruses like SARS-CoV-2, rare molds and other emerging pathogens. Rich conversations ensued about how these microorganisms interact with each other, adapt to new habitats and host environments, and can be used to advance and repair societies. Experts shared research about food microbiology, soil microbiology and coral-associated microbes, the importance of diagnostic stewardship and combatting antimicrobial resistance using a One Health approach. Clinical Public Health and Global Health issues were dissected, from "Advanced Microscopy and Infectious Disease Histopathology" to the "Case for the Gram Stain;" "Wastewater Surveillance" to "Advanced Molecular Detection;" "Biosafety" to "Global Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic" and "Vaccine Trials in Developing Countries."

There were sessions about professional development, research techniques, teaching in microbiology and ethics in science. There were robust discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM, and the Poster Hall, Community Corners and Meet-Ups provided vibrant opportunities for participants to connect and engage with their peers. Throw in a yoga class, some live demonstrations and so much more…the only thing left to be desired was more viewing time. A brief overview of a few of the hot sessions has been included below.

Microbes in Space

Conditions in space are extreme and complex, yet microorganisms are known to exhibit high adaptability to microgravity, strong radiation, low temperature, high pressure and low-nutrient environments. Furthermore, studies have indicated that bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, may exhibit altered behavior or morphology during space flight. However, unwanted microbes in space may damage equipment and threaten the health of the astronauts. Therefore, as microbes continue to be directly and indirectly introduced to space environments via human space exploration, relevant questions about microbial survival and adaptation should be investigated. At the World Microbe Forum, Dr. Elisabeth Grohmann, Dr. Charles Cockell, Dr. Christine Moissl-Eichinger and Dr. Jamie Foster highlighted current space microbiology experiments and their space and Earth applications.

Escaping Immune Defense During Early SARS-CoV-2 Infection

What makes SARS-CoV-2 more deadly to some patients than others, and why are those who exhibit certain preexisting health conditions at increased risk for severe disease? In this session, Dr. Benjamin tenOever broke down current understandings about the short and long-term consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection, as well as some of the biological features and strategies that the virus uses to avoid immune detection during early infection.

Researchers are attributing many of the problems associated with COVID-19 to the unique genome organization and replication strategy of the virus. SARS-CoV-2 accessory proteins are all contained on the 3’ end of its genome. In order make these proteins, the RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) must jump templates, through an RNA loop-like structure, and go from a transcriptional regulatory sequence (TRS sequence) on the 3’ end to another TRS sequence at the 5’ end of the coronavirus genome. This jumping of templates ensures that the 3’ end of the subgenomic RNA is always the same, regardless of what accessory or structural protein is made.

However, during replication, RdRP may fall off, miss its target sequence or generate RNA hybrids and aberrant template, such as double stranded RNA (dsRNA). Aberrant template is a common byproduct of rapid viral replication, and humans have evolved antiviral defenses to respond to the production of such pathogen associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). Upon PAMP detection, proteins in the cytoplasm called pathogen recognition receptors (PRRs) activate transcription factors, which typically set in motion 2 main cellular responses:

  1. Call to arms: NF-kB and interferon regulatory factors (IRFs) mediate induction of Type-1 interferons, which act as a signal to all cells in the surrounding area that a virus has been detected. The warning allows neighboring cells to prepare and be better equipped to deal with the virus and prevent it from killing and creating more damage as it spreads.
  2. Call for reinforcements: NF-kB induces secreted proteins that have chemoattractant properties, which recruit T cells, B cells, monocytes, neutrophils, natural killer (NK) cells - all cells of the innate and adaptive immune response- to come to the site of replication and aid in the process of neutralizing, and ultimately ridding the body of the virus.

SARS-CoV-2 is unique in that it induces NF-kB while blocking INF-1. As a result, SARS-CoV-2 replicates uninhibited, without a call to arms, while continuing to call for reinforcements. This is what generates the so-called "cytokine storm" that is often associated with severe COVID-19. As reinforcement inflammatory cells accumulate, they begin to act on their own inflammatory environment, which becomes destructive. Because of this unique pattern, when the virus is in its most healthy environment, it will win. However, as the virus continues to replicate and dsDNA accumulates, host cells are able to recognize PAMPs before there is time for the virus to make proteins that shut down INF-1 production. As a result, the call to arms will be initiated, but with a significant delay.

Origins of COVID

Past ASM President Victor DiRita acknowledged that questions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 “touch every aspect of the microbial sciences–virology, big data, genome science, zoonosis and the One Health question.” In the Leader’s Forum, Dr. Susan Dentzler led a distinguished panel, including Dr. James Le Duc, Dr. Diane E. Griffin and Dr. Marcia McNutt, in a candid discussion, raising key questions that must be answered if we are to determine where SARS-CoV-2 came from and prevent this type of outbreak from happening again.

According to Le Duc, in order to thoroughly address the lab leak hypothesis, "we need to ask where was coronavirus research being conducted and by whom?" He added that, "we should really survey all the areas where coronavirus research is underway." We also need to ask, "what level of biocontainment is being used for these experiments, and we should look fairly closely at the infrastructure in each of these laboratories."

Beyond the lab leak hypothesis, Dr. Griffin emphasized the need for a survey or catalogue of virus sequences that are present in the environment, stating that those that are present in wild and domestic animals that have contact with humans are of particular importance.

"We need this information ahead of time, before the next pandemic happens, in some international, organized database that exists, is publicly accessible and accountable," she said.

McNutt presented action steps, centering around open dialogue, journals publications and international collaboration, which will be key to preventing this type of pandemic from happening again.

"We need to foster a broader and deeper dialogue around potential sources of the origin of the virus," she said. "By investigating the entire range of possibilities, we might not only determine where this virus came from, but we might also get some good ideas of how we might prevent some future event from happening."

But McNutt says the process of open dialogue is undermined when journals are unfairly accused of bias. "We have to give journals the right to publish studies depending on the degree to which the conclusions of the paper are based on evidence. For some scenarios the evidence is going to be more difficult to obtain and make forthcoming, but that doesn’t mean that those hypotheses should be ruled out."

She added that reticence to grant scientists the freedom to openly investigate the origin of the pandemic without fear of retribution will have profound impacts on the workforce of today and in the future.

"This is a very complex issue, and anything less than openness to explore any viable hypothesis not only discourages those top scientists from working on this problem, and we need them, but it also discourages the next generation of students to choose epidemiology. We need to promote, not hinder, that next generation of virus experts, otherwise we will be woefully understaffed for the next emergency."

Still, according to McNutt, one of the thorniest things impeding progress is scientists being urged to pull back from international collaborations, which provide insights about experiments underway, lab safety protocols and culture pervading research into epidemiology around the world.

"These collaborations build trust before an emergency arises. The worst outcome is for experts to be trading business cards for the first time during that emergency."

Science Communication Training

Effective communication skills are now requisite for scientists. To help provide training in this area, ASM recently offered "Science Communication for Microbiologists," a new online course that explored strategies, approaches and techniques for science communication. Fifty-seven ASM members signed up for the course, participating in live, interactive weekly sessions over the course of 5 weeks. Participants were able to choose one of the following unique tracks that provided training about how to effectively engage with specific audiences:

  • Advocacy (for communicating with members of Congress and local legislators).
  • Lay audiences (for communicating with general, non-expert audiences).
  • Media relations (for communicating with journalists and reporters).
  • Messaging (for general communication strategies).

The course culminated in participants using their newly acquired skills to give live presentations during World Microbe Forum at sessions, including the "Advocacy Shark Tank," "Elevator Pitches" and the "Up-Goer 5 challenge."

Microbial Science of Japanese Food

Ever wonder what gives Japanese food the traditional Umami-taste? Not surprisingly, the flavor can be attributed to a microbe. Aspergillus oryzae, or Koji mold, as it is referred to in Japan, is a filamentous fungus used in the production of soy sauce, sake and soy paste, or miso. In a session focused on food microbiology, Dr. Jun-ichi Maruyama, Dr. Kenichiro Matsushima, Dr. Hiroshi Kitagaki, Dr. Jiro Nakayama and Dr. Tomoko Matsui discussed traditional fermentation processes of Japanese cuisine and shared biotechnological advances that are increasing production, improving product quality and benefiting the industry as a whole.

Agar Art Demo

Microbiologists have long recognized and celebrated the beauty of microbes through art. In fact, Alexander Fleming began painting on agar with microbes before his discovery of penicillin in 1928. At World Microbe Forum, Dr. Danielle Snowflack and Geoff Hunt, Ph.D., hosted a live agar art demonstration, using E. coli that were subjected to "rainbow transformation experiments," in which plasmid DNA containing genes for colorful proteins was introduced to the bacterial genome to create a variety of pigments for painting.

Learn more about agar art.

Live Art with Johnny Chang

Microbe Party
Microbe Party
Source: American Society for Microbiology
ASM’s own Johnny Chang hosted 2 sessions of "Live Art with Johnny Chang" that were a great success. These sessions offered a fun, lively opportunity for attendees to submit personal requests for microbial artwork, watch Johnny create their pieces in real-time and interact with one another and the artist throughout the process. The image shown here is an example of Johnny Chang’s work. Thank you, Johnny, for keeping us all smiling!

In his closing remarks, ASM CEO Stefano Bertuzzi thanked all World Microbe Forum participants for bringing their expertise and passion to this meeting. "At a time when COVID-19 kept us apart, it’s a wonderful sign that microbiologists from all over the world got together, in an unprecedented way, to add value, share knowledge and remind the world of the power that the microbial sciences can unleash."

FEMS Managing Director Matthew Harvey enthusiastically added, "ASM and FEMS were inspired by the collaborations and perseverance that have been demonstrated over the last 18 months throughout the pandemic, to bring to life the concept of the World Microbe Forum. We knew that despite the physical distancing, we could still bring our communities together in a really special way to share cutting edge, interdisciplinary microbiology research, and thanks to all of you, that’s exactly what we’ve done."


Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Ashley Hagen, M.S. is the Scientific and Digital Editor for the American Society for Microbiology and host of ASM's Microbial Minutes.