What I learned from Prof. Kim Nasmyth’s closing remarks at the “Evolution, Structure and function of Chromosomes High Order Structure” Conference

I attended the four-day Pasteur Institute conference titled “Evolution, Structure and /function of Chromosomes High Order Structure” in memory of Francois Jacob from June 4 to 7. I was very fortunate to have this opportunity not only to learn the fundamentals about eukaryotic and prokaryotic chromosomes but also to add new insights into the latest developments in this field! The conference was organized by a group of scientists from the Pasteur Institute and two outsiders, with Professor Moshe Yaniv as the key organizer who made this conference a great success. In addition to great speakers sharing updated findings, active discussion contributed to the success of this conference, the organizing committee arranged plenty of time for discussions, which took place not only right after each speech but also during poster session, coffee breaks and lunch. Professor Kim Nasmyth, from Oxford University, was invited by Professor Yaniv to conclude: he not only provided concluding remarks but also highlighted those items – whether they reflect curiosity-driven interrogations or approaches rooted to innovating and applying cutting edge methods and technologies – for which there are still unmet needs.

Professor Nasmyth was doing so, all over the meeting with an outstanding sense of prolonging interactions between and post the conference. It is not difficult to sense that he is an educator with a vision rooted in a demanding concision and enthusiasm! At the beginning of the closing speech, he first explained that the items he would highlight are reflecting his personal thoughts. He said, “If you do not mention it because someone may disagree, then it loses its meaning of closing remark! So, whoever disagrees with these contextual remarks, please bear with me! ” Demeanor and humor! It’s an excellent start!

Professor Nasmyth began his brilliant speech with the idea that “Chromosome was just pure DNA. Because of everyone’s efforts, let us have a new understanding of chromosomes, this is probably the contribution of research! ” Speaking of this, I  was reminded that “the result of basic research provides the basis for translational investigations.” Without these basic research that satisfies curiosity, there is no way to understand chromosomes, and it is impossible to conduct current translational researches.

Starting with a slide (above) on chromosome extracted from a textbook, Professor Nasmyth added “This is completely wrong!” in red to appeal to the audience to kindly stop quoting it. This onset allowed him to delineate how exploratory research should proceed. When there is enough knowledge gathering later, it is the right time to rearrange and construct a new hypothesis! Although the old theory is sometimes overthrown by new discoveries, the accumulated details formally provide the basis for the next hypothesis! The credit can’t be erased! Because of the hypothesis, posterity can design experiments to verify it. If the hypothesis proves to be inaccurate, it would stimulate a new hypothesis; if the hypothesis still withstands the test of time, scientists can follow this hypothesis. One has to continue to explore further and unravel the most basic mode of life hidden in the deep! Being demanding upon the question “How do cells package vast lengths of bacterial DNA into chromosomes and, in eukaryotic cells, into the nuclear volume?”

Professor Nasmyth then quoted Jacques Monod words of “What is true for E. coli, is true for an elephant.” Yes, the essential elements of sustaining life will be preserved through evolution. (Professor David Sherratt, from Oxford University, gave example that the Structural Maintenance of Chromosomes (SMC) family of proteins is conserved in E. coli and among all species! Professor Nasmyth went on to encourage everyone to develop new technologies to break through the bottleneck of chromosome researches. In addition to the well-established Hi-C technology, there is now SPRITE (a method for mapping higher-order nuclear complexes) and other novel findings, leading everyone to move forward!

“We certainly observe these visible pieces as closely as we can, but at the same time we seek to divine the hidden gears and parts that explain its apparent motions. Our task is to explain.” citation from Nobel Prize winner Jean Perrin. Professor Nasmyth added, “Is all truth simple? If so, why?”  I sincerely admire scientists who discovered functions of intron, non-coding RNA, and others. Those scientists are curious enough to challenge unknown and have the persistence of pursuing new knowledge! Their findings also explain a simple principle: the material that survives the long-term evolution should have its necessity! From this point of view, how to solve the mystery of “recombination interference” in meiotic chromosomes will be one of our tasks!

Professor Nasmyth said, “Study things with sufficient care that you notice and take seriously the unexpected and mystery (e.g. recombination interference)”.  He then encouraged everyone to anticipate some unexpected results, or to explore phenomena that are currently unexplained, for a better understanding of living processes!

He went on to express, “What constitutes an important discovery? An observation or thought that creates more ignorance than it does knowledge!” This is a great slide to remind everyone to be careful. However, the author believed that the clever blind man will not make a statement by touching an elephant just once. One shall make multi-faceted attempts and collate information from others to propose a working model. At the same time, one shall not only be careful in interpreting results but also be optimistic.

I was deeply touched by Professor Nasmyth’s own experience sharing with the audience, and totally agree with him on his take home message of “Many people can become great scientists, and the courage to challenge the unknown is one of the important qualities of a happy scientist! ”

By Dr. Hsiu-Jung Lo, National Institute of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology

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