Sea, Sand, and Science at Asilomar

One of the most fascinating questions in biology is how organisms accomplish the physical feat of condensing their vast amounts of DNA into manageable volumes, while still being able to access and transcribe any gene when needed. In early July, more than a hundred researchers assembled at the Asilomar Conference Center on the misty shores of the Pacific to share their perspectives on the topic.

The meeting was unique in bringing together physicists and biologists, experimentalists and theorists, and scientists who focus on prokaryotes and scientists who focus on eukaryotes. The resulting mix was electric, exciting, and dynamic.

The speakers gave outstanding talks and provoked extensive discussions and the participants had extended opportunities for informal interactions.
Artificial boundaries between research areas and approaches were fully breeched. Topics covered included DNA packaging and transcriptional dynamics in prokaryotes, with lively discussions and new perspectives on a topic that speaker Rob Philips said that some mistakenly put down as “so 1970s.” The parallels and differences between bacterial and viral DNA packaging and DNA condensation by H1 and polyvalent cations were also highlighted. The nucleosome was extensively featured, with talks including single molecule physical studies, theory and modeling, and molecular biological approaches.

An especially vibrant and engaged participant was Jon Widom. In typical fashion, when a questioner commented that what he had presented differed from the textbook representations, Widom remarked they will be rewriting the textbooks. Widom passed away tragically and unexpectedly shortly after the meeting (see in Remembrance, this page).

Following are some comments from the attendees about what they liked best:

  • The mix of participants with different backgrounds (biochemists, physicists, etc.)
  • Fantastic diverse set of speakers, giving excellent talks.
  • The informal settings and the quality of talks of great. The venue was superb.
  • Staying with other participants in one place gave the opportunity for exchange apart from posters and talks.
  • Meeting other people in the field in an informal way provided plenty of time for discussion.
  • The smaller size enabled a lot of good discussion. The professors were good about talking to postdocs and grad students and not only to other professors.
  • The composition of the group of attendants was not too large and shared a focus.
  • For me it was an opportunity to meet top scientists in fields that don’t normally mix. The techniques ranged through theoretical simulation, unusual applications (for me) of biophysical techniques, and stunning molecular imagining that forces one to rethink
    old assumptions. This was a very powerful effect of the group interaction.
  • Mixture of molecular biochemists, biologists, and physicists interested in DNA and other types of compaction and organization.
  • The discussion during the sessions was more free-flowing than I have found at other meetings, even Gordon Research Conferences.
  • Gathering a variety of people and discussing future collaboration during other meetings.
  • At other meetings, as a molecular biologist, I end up mostly interacting with other biologists and biochemists. It was really great to hear what the physicists thought and get their perspective on things.
  • The confluence of people from molecular biology, physics, and engineering.

September 2011 Newsletter