Annual Skirball Symposium Explores ‘The Social Lives of Cells’

The Skirball Institute’s 15th annual symposium kicked off Friday, September 26, with a packed audience in Farkas auditorium, as one Nobel Prize–winning guest delivered the opening lecture, named in honor of another Nobel Prize winner and former faculty member at NYULMC. (Pictured left, symposium speaker Dr. Denise Montell with NYULMC faculty member, Dr. Steve Burden at the Skirball Symposium.  All photos by Andrew Neary.)

Celebrated biologist H. Robert Horvitz, PhD, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator (HHMI), who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology based on his work on apoptosis, or cell death, spoke as the Severo Ochoa guest lecturer. (Severo Ochoa, MD, professor and chair of the biochemistry department from 1954–1974, shared the 1959 Nobel Prize for unraveling the biological synthesis of RNA and DNA.) 

The Death and Birth of Cells

Dr. Horvitz said that uncovering the mysteries of cell death is important because apoptosis underlies many basic biological functions, ranging from sculpting tissues in early life development, to most disease processes. Too much cell death, he added, whether from heart attack, AIDS, anemia, or traumatic brain injury, is as bad as too little cell death, such as in cancer or during viral infection. Dr. Horvitz pointed out that basic science research drives advances in science, noting that his own research into the prevailing biological route for cell death, known as a caspase-dependent pathway, has led his research team to recently discover three more alternative pathways.

From left, Skirball Symposium speakers Drs. H. Robert Horwitz, Maria Barna, Denise Montell, Robert Weinberg, Alex Schier, Joshua Sanes, Christopher Garcia, and Larry Zipursky.

The day-long symposium, whose central theme was “The Social Lives of Cells: Making and Breaking Cellular Contacts,” quickly changed tack from cell death to developing cells’ earliest beginnings, or as the day’s second speaker, Harvard University’s Alexander Schier, PhD, put it: “gastrulation, the most important event in our life.”

Dr. Schier, who started his own lab at Skirball in 1996, returned to his academic origins by describing his latest work in this key stage of embryogenesis, and how so-called NODAL and LEFTY cell-signaling helps direct embryonic stem cells to develop into the three classic germ cell layers from which all bodily tissues emerge. Dr. Schier also outlined his work showing how a small peptide, known as Toddler, helps cells move about and sort themselves into the telltale endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm.

How Cells Communicate

Cell communication pathways, and how they lead to distinct cell types or go awry in disease, remained the dominant theme for the rest of the symposium.

Stanford University’s Maria Barna, PhD, spoke about her exciting discovery that ribosomes are not mere workhorses of the cell that indiscriminately translate RNA into protein, but can be highly specialized and play an unexpected regulatory role for tissue morphogenesis.

Enlightening conversations outside Farkas Auditorium at the Skirball Symposium. From left NYULMC faculty members Dr. Mark Reid Philips, Dr. Ruth Lehmann, and Dr. Dan Littman, with symposium guest and Nobel laureate Dr. H. Robert Horvitz.

Denise Montell, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported on her research into the ability of cells, doomed to die, to revert back to life. However, “resurrection,” or as Dr. Montell termed the process, anastasis (Greek for “rising to life”), is not without risk and can propagate cells with damaging mutations.

How such cancer cells migrate and metastasize to other tissues were the topics of the Whitehead Institute’s Robert Weinberg, PhD, a process he describes as the epithelial-mesenchymal transition.

The Building of Neural Circuits

Three symposium speakers, Stanford’s Chris Garcia, PhD, an HHMI investigator; Harvard’s Joshua Sanes, PhD; and University of California, Los Angeles’ Larry Zipursky, PhD, also an HHMI investigator, addressed a key question in neuroscience: how complex neural circuits are assembled. Their data suggest that thousands of similar, yet distinct recognition molecules provide each neuron with a unique tag to recognize itself and make appropriate connections with other cells. 

Ruth Lehmann, PhD, the Laura and Iassc Perlmuter Professor of Cell Biology, Skirball Institute director, and symposium host, called the presentations “both fascinating and humbling.

“Now that we have learned to read the human genome, we realize how much remains to be learned about fundamental processes of the cell, the building block of every animal and plant,” said Dr. Lehmann, who is also an HHMI investigator and chair of the Department Cell Biology, in her closing remarks.

The symposium was organized by NYU Langone’s Steve Burden, PhD; Ken Cadwell, PhD; Jeremy Nance, PhD; David Stokes, PhD; and Jesus Torres-Vazquez, PhD, all faculty at the Skirball Institute.