Cell Bio Virtual 2021, an ASCB|EMBO Meeting: Advances in Cell Biology and Beyond

ASCB President Ruth Lehmann invited Cell Bio Virtual 2021 Program Committee co-chairs Daniel Gerlich and Denise Montell to write this issue’s President’s Column.

Excellence through Diversity

Cells are spectacularly diverse: from miniscule microbes to massive oocytes to motor neurons with meters-long axons. And from the unlimited potential of zygotes to the 100-year-old cardiomyocyte still beating in a centenarian’s heart, cells never cease to amaze. Underneath this diversity though, lie deeply conserved processes, and the more we learn about the inner workings of cells, the clearer the fundamental similarities in core mechanisms become.

Cell biologists are as diverse yet fundamentally similar as their research subjects. The overarching goal of Cell Bio 2021 is to showcase and bring together the full spectrum of cell biology research and researchers. Given the incredible range of topics and approaches, it is impossible to cover everything in a concise overview. So here is just a taste of what will be on offer at Cell Bio Virtual 2021:


Biomolecular condensates. Hiding in plain sight, liquid–liquid phase separation, which generates membraneless organelles, has emerged as a ubiquitous mechanism for spatial segregation within cells. Mixtures of biomolecules that self-organize into micron-scale structures to compartmentalize biochemical reactions, localize signaling events, and serve biomechanical functions have taken cell biology by storm. Amy Gladfelter, Simon Alberti, and many others will share their latest findings about the molecular mechanisms underlying biomolecular condensates and their roles in spatial and temporal organization of the cytoplasm.

Cell and tissue mechanics. With unrivaled physical beauty and structural importance, the cytoskeleton is an enduring favorite of cell biologists. Enrique De La Cruz will share recent work investigating how cells regulate the length, assembly, and severing of actin filaments. His is among many presentations on this core subject.

Imaging across scales. What you see depends on how you look, and innovations in microscopy have long been driving cell biology discoveries. Recent technical advances are allowing interrogation of ever smaller and ever larger biological structures, from the single molecule to the tissue scale, and permitting automated imaging for genome-wide perturbations. Xiaowei Zhuang, a pioneer of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, will deliver a Keynote Lecture showcasing integration of intelligent probe design with cutting-edge microscopy and sophisticated computational approaches to provide insights into genome architecture and gene expression programs. Expanding into multiscale and automated imaging, Jan Ellenberg will show how imaging approaches provide insights into cell division and nuclear organization. David Van Valen leverages advanced imaging, genomics, and deep learning software developed by his laboratory to acquire integrated measurements probing microbial host–virus interactions.

The overarching goal of Cell Bio 2021 is to showcase and bring together the full spectrum of cell biology research and researchers.

Intra- and intercellular communication. Membrane-bound organelles like mitochondria, peroxisomes, endoplasmic reticulum, and lysosomes are key features of eukaryotic cells. Although organelles are mostly studied independently, inter-organelle communication is emerging as critical to cellular homeostasis and stress responses. Maya Schuldiner will discuss the molecular composition and functional consequences of direct contacts between organelles. While organelles are busy interacting inside the cell, on the outside cells encounter extracellular matrices and other cells. At tissue boundaries, inter-organ communication is only just beginning to be explored. The blood–brain barrier is a particularly fascinating—and enormous—site for critical communication between the vascular system and the brain. Chenghua Gu will present the latest findings from her lab on the molecular and cellular mechanisms that regulate the blood–brain barrier normally and in disease.

The nucleus. The largest organelle, the nucleus, is cellular headquarters and home to the genome and epigenetic regulation. Tracy Johnson will present her insights into the interplay between the RNA splicing machinery and chromatin in the regulation of eukaryotic gene expression. Jennifer Phillips-Cremins combines cutting-edge 3D epigenomics with stem cell and organoid systems to study mammalian brain development and function.

Recent technical advances are allowing interrogation of ever smaller and ever larger biological structures….

Organogenesis. As cell biology extends its tentacles into the very small and the ever larger, organoids represent another exciting frontier. Development of multicellular organs and organisms relies on self-organization into layers, tubes, and even more complex structures, a veritable and varied cellular origami. While much has been—and continues to be—learned from organisms such as worms, flies, fish, and mice, the ability to grow miniature organ-like structures has launched research in many exciting directions, including a new era in the study of human cells and tissues in health and disease. Madeline Lancaster and Prisca Liberali will speak about how brain and gut organoids can be used to gain insights into organogenesis, and Sara Wickstrom will describe how multiple stem cells fuel the growth, differentiation, and renewal of our largest organ, the skin.

Signaling and metabolism. The study of cellular metabolism in health and disease has undergone a renaissance in recent years. It has long been appreciated that the cancer cell metabolism differs from that of normal cells. Donita Brady will share her thoughts on the roles of metal ions in nutrient sensing and regulation of protein kinases. Bao-Liang Song will present the latest on cholesterol homeostasis, trafficking, and signaling.

Regulation of cell death and survival. In times of stress, cells either adapt or die. We will hear late-breaking research from Noburo Mizushima into autophagy mechanisms and from Vishva Dixit into cell death and inflammation.

Special Interest Subgroups. These member-organized sessions provide a forum for deep discussions about themes that bubble up from the community. Look here for tomorrow’s next big thing. Ranging from currently niche topics that could well come to dominate the meeting in a few years (e.g., Quantum Biology) to those that burn with urgency today (e.g., Membrane Biology of Virus Entry and Assembly), the Special Interest Subgroups are a bonus of a large meeting. These sessions provide a refreshing stream of emerging trends and ideas from many fields, inspiring our broad community.

Doorstep Meeting on Neurodegeneration and Repair. A popular addition to the ASCB|EMBO meeting in recent years, the doorstep meeting takes place the day before the official start of the meeting. This year’s event will feature both junior and senior speakers including Pietro De Camilli, Frank Bradke, Ai Yamamoto, and Andrea Stavoe, along with a greater number of talks to be chosen from submitted abstracts. You won’t want to miss the interactive sessions on Therapeutic Approaches, with panelists from foundations and pharma, networking sessions, and important discussions on how to improve the culture of science through inclusion and diversity.

Minisymposia. A perennial highlight of the meeting, tune in to the Minisymposia for the most current science selected from submitted abstracts.

Poster sessions. One of the big challenges of virtual conferences has been poster sessions. So we are excited to present a new and improved format. Presenters will have the ability to upload a three- to five-minute audio presentation for on-demand listening. Posters will be grouped together by topic to help attendees find their favorites. An asynchronous chat will be available for each poster throughout the meeting. There will also be a 30-minute time slot each day where poster presenters can choose to be available. The scheduled time slots are at different times each day to better accommodate the different time zones of those participating in the meeting. Poster presenters can choose to be available for as many of these time slots as they wish and indicate in the virtual platform when they will be there. Up to nine other attendees can join the poster presenter in the room to discuss the poster. The poster presenter will be able to share their screen with their poster or videos.

The meeting is as much about researchers as it is about their research….

Education and professional development sessions.The meeting is as much about researchers as it is about their research, and we are committed to enhancing the professional development of all attendees through learning and networking opportunities. Check out sessions on career options, transitioning careers, skills building, teaching, international relations, science policy, publishing, communications, diversity in the workforce, and more. Most sessions will be available live for group interactions, and hot topics from Cell Bio 2021 will be available in our on-demand library.

Minorities Affairs Committee FRED Symposium.The Faculty Research and Education Development (FRED) Mentoring Program, supported by ASCB’s Minorities Affairs Committee, is designed to promote grant funding success for senior postdocs and junior faculty from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM or faculty members at minority-serving institutions. Hear great science from FRED program participants, learn more about the successes of the FRED program and what it offers, and connect with FRED program mentee and mentor alums to expand your network and establish potential collaborations for future projects.

Women in Cell Biology 50th Anniversary.This year, we celebrate the founding of ASCB’s Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee and the contributions, challenges, and triumphs within the social and academic landscape that women in STEM have met over the last 50 years. Discover awesome science presented in a special “Wonder Women in Cell Biology” session; explore real conversations and situations encountered by members in the mentoring theater, “WICB50: Challenges and triumphs of women in cell biology over 50 years;” and join WICB-led networking sessions that will reflect on how the role of the WICB Committee and women in cell biology has evolved with a forward look at making positive change for the future.

The COVID pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of our lives for more than a year now. While we had hoped to see you in person, the online format does offer some advantages, such as access for many who would not be able to attend in person and the opportunity for more inclusive Q&A. So, we invite you to join us. There is so much we have to learn from each other, and we are really looking forward to a great Cell Bio 2021!

About the Author:

Daniel Gerlich is a Senior Group Leader at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.
Denise Montell is the Duggan Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.