Inaugural Centromere Biology Gordon Conference: Beth Sullivan

As part of its mission to encourage engagement within the genetics community, PLOS Genetics is sponsoring a number of conferences and meetings this year. In order to raise awareness about these conferences and the researchers who attend them we are featuring a number of these conferences on Biologue, with posts written by the organizers or PLOS Genetics editors who are involved.

The next of these conferences is the Centromere Biology Gordon Conference, which takes place in Waltham, Massachusetts between the 27th of July and the 1st of August. Beth Sullivan, PLOS Genetics editor, says a few words about the conference and why she finds it exciting.

I’m Beth Sullivan, an Associate Editor for PLOS Genetics, and an Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA.

My lab’s research focuses on the centromere, a region of the chromosome that is required to faithfully pass on genetic information during each cell division. Research over the past three decades has indicated that in most organisms, both DNA sequence and sequence-independent factors define a centromere. Recent efforts have focused on the biology of a specific centromere protein called CENP-A. Many in the field are studying the structure of CENP-A protein complexes and how CENP-A is incorporated and maintained at centromeres. However, there is much more to centromeres than just CENP-A.

Conference Chair Rachel O’Neill (University of Connecticut, Storrs) and I are organizing the inaugural Centromere Biology Gordon Research Conference (GRC) to be held at Bentley University in Waltham, MA on July 27 – August 1, 2014.


The Adamian Building at Bentley University, where the Centromere Biology Gordon Research Conference will be taking place. Image credit: Public Domain

For the past 25 years, the centromere community has grown steadily, encompassing many areas of centromere biology including genomics, epigenetics, chromosome engineering, and comparative genetics. Despite this increase in depth, there have been few meetings dedicated exclusively to topics in centromere structure and function.

Rachel O’Neill and I have been colleagues, friends, and collaborators for several years now. In early May 2012, we attended an editorial board meeting at Woods Hole, and amongst our conversations about running, shoes, and science, we found ourselves lamenting that the centromere field lacked a meeting in the U.S. that included a spectrum of speakers that represented the diverse areas of centromere research. We touched base with several colleagues in the centromere field, primarily to gauge if there was interest in a U.S.-based meeting. The answer was a resounding yes! Two weeks later, we submitted an application for a new GRC, and thanks to the support of several heavy-hitters in the field, we successfully joined the prestigious GRC portfolio.

Our goal for this meeting is to bring together U.S. centromere researchers, as well as those from around the world to present unpublished research on mechanisms of centromere biology, and to identify new and collaborative areas of study. Attendees and speakers are coming from as far away as India, Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia. Because so many other conferences are dominated by “the big names” in the field, Rachel and I wanted the Centromere Gordon conference to represent the diversity in the centromere field, both in topics and investigator status. We hope this conference will especially provide a forum to highlight research from trainee (graduate students and postdocs), junior investigators, and under-represented groups.

The conference program includes 9 sessions focused on topics that include the emerging area of centromere genomics, centromere organization and dynamics, CENP-A nucleosome dynamics and structure, coordination of centromeric domains, centromere-kinetochore interactions, synthetic/de novo/ectopic centromeres, centromeric RNAs and transcription, centromere evolution, and variant centromeres. The meeting begins and ends with keynote talks by two prominent leaders in the field, Steven Henikoff (HHMI, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) and William Earnshaw (Wellcome Trust Center for Cell Biology, University of Edinburgh). These two well-respected scientists epitomize different ends of the centromere biology spectrum, and their talks will serve to emphasize the research diversity within the field.

dicentric for PLOS

This image is of an induced/engineered dicentric human chromosome (center of image) created in the Sullivan lab at Duke University. It is immunostained for centromere protein CENP-A (green) and centromere protein CENP-B (red); chromosomes are counterstained with DAPI (blue). Several of the sessions at the meeting will focus on CENP-A dynamics, CENP-B’s role in centromere assembly, and the biology of ectopic (induced) centromeres and dicentric chromosomes. Image credit: Kaitlin Stimpson Woodlief


Defining genomic and epigenetic aspects of centromere function remains a primary goal of my lab’s research. As a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University, I studied Robertsonian translocations, and I still maintain a deep interest in dicentric chromosomes – i.e. those with two centromeres. In the late 1930s, Barbara McClintock first described the unstable behavior of dicentric chromosomes in maize. However, dicentric human chromosomes, which occur naturally at a frequency of one in 1000 livebirths, are quite stable, and are even transmitted through meiosis (i.e. parent to child). This is because they undergo centromere inactivation or suppression. How and when centromere inactivation occurs after dicentric formation is unclear, and is a question I hope to understand before my time in science is over. The fact that other scientists who also want to discuss and understand this biological problem will be gathered in a few weeks at the Centromere Biology GRC is something I eagerly anticipate.

Rachel and I are extremely appreciative that PLOS Genetics, a premier journal publishing excellent and cutting-edge science, is a sponsor of this new research conference. We hope that attendees of the Centromere Biology GRC will leave the meeting with fresh questions about centromeres, innovative ideas to tackle those questions, and beneficial new collaborations. At the very least, we hope everyone will return to the lab with a new or rejuvenated enthusiasm for centromere biology.

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