The sixth annual JAMS Symposium (aka the ultimate session for microbiologists down under)

On Wednesday 22nd March 2017 a motley crew of around 130 microbiologists gathered at the Australian Museum in Sydney for the annual JAMS Symposium. From humble beginnings the Joint Academic Microbiology Seminars Symposium has grown into what many consider to be a highlight of the year, representing the largest independent meeting in Australia of microbiologists from all disciplines. It is powered by enthusiastic volunteers and donations from sponsors – nothing would be possible without their generous support.

The concept of JAMS was born at ISME13 in Seattle from a simple idea – why don’t we get people together in Sydney to drink beer and discuss microbiology? The concept caught on and before too long a series of informal seminars were being held once a month, with a focus on allowing PhD students and ECRs to share their work with each other. In contrast, the annual JAMS symposium features presentations by established scientists hailing from all over the world, followed by dinner and drinks surrounded by old friends and new. The JAMS Inc. style is summed up best by Federico Lauro, one of the founding trio, who says “it’s simple, we just dig microbiology”. And that’s why I made the trip from Adelaide to be a part of it.

Thomas Jeffries from Western Sydney University began proceedings by calling Fede “The JAMS Yoda”. I found this gif which reminded me of the JAMS motto – minima maxima sunt – or the small things are the great things. I’m sure most people in attendance would agree with me that the microbes were the real luminous beings on show!

 

Mike Givstov from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore kicked us off with a great presentation about the quest for anti-biofilm-biotics. He emphasised the fact that most antibiotic discovery pipelines fail to screen against bacteria in biofilm state, which is strange given that this is the preferred life-mode during infection and it is known to act as a protective shield. He gave examples where mechanisms to disrupt biofilms based on inhibition of quorum sensing or cyclic diguanylate signalling can be combined with traditional antibiotics to increase their efficacy against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Next we heard from Mike Taylor from the University of Auckland in New Zealand who spoke about characterising the microbiome associated with chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS). CRS affects 5% of the US population with treatment costs exceeding $8 billion in the US alone. Using 16S rRNA gene sequencing data, Mike and his team have shown that despite high variability, CRS microbiome network maps are more fragmented compared to healthy controls and exhibit decreased species diversity, suggesting that CRS is associated with community dysbiosis.

Mike Manefield’s tweet shows a captivated audience during Mike Taylor’s talk and the first of many confronting images for the afternoon, none of which came with any prior warning!

 

You might also be excused for thinking this is the Joint Academic Mike-robiology Seminars, with so much involvement from people named Mike …

 

The final talk before the break saw Perran Cook from Monash University in Melbourne enlighten us on mechanisms of anoxic microbial metabolism in permeable sediments. He presented data to support a hypothesis for dominance of diatoms in euphotic sand, with evidence for high levels of hydrogen production. He suggested that algal anaerobic fermentation drives lipid production, acting as an energy store which can be accessed once the oxygen concentration increases.

 

During the break I caught up with some of my favourite EMCR women in Australian microbiology, namely Ania Deutscher from the Department of Primary Industries NSW, Cath Burke from the University of Technology Sydney and Deirdre Mikkelsen from the University of Queensland. Over a glass of wine we spoke about many things, most notably around how to effectively combat the adverse effects of constantly second-guessing ourselves. We wondered if this was common for other women in our field and agreed that peer mentoring was likely to be the best medicine. I’m definitely going to keep this conversation going and I’d like to encourage others experiencing similar feelings to reach out for support. I sat down for the second session with a renewed sense of optimism and confidence that I’d found the right path forwards.

After the break Professor Liz Harry from the University of Technology Sydney gave a sweet presentation on the antimicrobial properties of Australian manuka honey. Did you catch the pun? I couldn’t resist, and apparently microbes find it hard to escape the application of manuka honey as a topical treatment for skin wounds. The antimicrobial properties can be attributed to a number of factors and work is underway to determine which is most important. Liz made an interesting point about how people may be reluctant to use honey as a treatment due to fear of the unknown, but the reality is that we don’t know everything about many of the drugs we take. She provided evidence for the ability of Australian manuka honey to reverse resistance of Staphylococcus aureus to oxacillin. We were all kept entertained by yet more pictures of lesions a subtle dig aimed at our Kiwi friends across the ditch.

 

Up next was Nicole Webster from the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville. The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief when she promised not to show any gross pictures. Many people were excited for her to present – apparently it was a long time coming for the JAMS faithful!

 

Nicole’s talk described a large body of work to characterise virus assemblages found in seawater and associated with corals and sponges on the Great Barrier Reef using a functional metaviromic workflow called HoloVir. The different sample types had distinct viral profiles suggesting adaptation to specific ecological niches. Communities exhibited high diversity and low similarity to sequenced viromes, creating challenges that needed to be overcome during analysis. One additional interesting finding was that inshore virus genomes show enrichment for herbicide resistance genes, providing evidence for the effects of anthropogenic disturbance within a delicate ecosystem. The official JAMS tweet sums this talk up best:

 

Our final talk for the symposium was delivered by Steve Siciliano from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Like others in the room, I had the pleasure of seeing Steve’s talk at JAMS1 and I think all are in agreeance that he is welcome back for JAMS12! Steve told us that the most important factor driving soil microbiology in his study system is not the increase of the invasive plant smooth brome but the concomitant loss of native plant species. Using co-inertia analysis he presented a model where smooth brome structures the bacterial communities which in turn structures the fungi and archaea structure both. By this stage many of us are slightly confused which gave rise to a couple of great comments from Steve to see us to the end of the presentations.

 

We headed upstairs in the Australian Museum main building for dinner and drinks overlooking the Sydney skyline and harbour. It’s a beautiful spot and I swap stories with Aaron Darling about the experiences we had on our respective US sabbaticals. After the mains are served Jeff Powell is called upon to award the winner of the Jeff Powell Perpetual Student Award. Even though Steve suggested we should be trusting of Canadians, the JAMS faithful know better. Jeff was the inaugural winner of the JAMS Symposium student poster prize – but was subsequently disqualified as a postdoc who couldn’t read instructions! As the announcement was made, we were treated to some impromptu fireworks over the harbour, and so concluded the (somewhat) formal part of the evening.

 

The afterparty kicked on at Harpoon Harry, a short stroll from the museum and the site of the regular JAMS events. These are well worth attending if you find yourself in Sydney on the last Tuesday of the month. You could even use it as an excuse to visit – I’m sure Mike Manefield would be very welcoming to volunteers seeking to give a talk. At closing time I find myself enjoying a gin with Justin Seymour who I had just met and Maurizio Labbate who I haven’t seen in over 10 years. That’s the power of JAMS – reuniting old friends and creating new ones!

All in all, the JAMS annual symposium represents a unique and truly enjoyable event on the Australian microbiology calendar. The organising committee strive to deliver unique offerings and opportunities to emerging microbiologists in the Sydney region, with plans to expand across Australia over the coming year. If you would like more information about how to get involved, simply visit jams.org.au or follow @jamsorgau.

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