Categories: Tree of Life9 March 20184.2 min read

A cautionary tale about blackberries [2/2]

At the end of the last post things were looking up, a source of plant material was found, it was now just a case of waiting for the seeds to be delivered so we could grow some up.

This was just before I was due to go to the Plant and Animal Genome conference (PAG) in San Diego, California, in January this year. For those of you thinking “wow, that must be great, getting to go to a nice sunny place for work- must be like a free holiday”, no. Academic conferences are not an excuse for a jolly, the schedule for these generally means you work LONGER hours than normal.

PAG this year ran from the Friday 12th January to Wednesday the 17th- including the weekend, with talks etc scheduled from 8am-6pm (not including extra workshops in the evenings). Marry that with a full day’s travelling on either end and you can hopefully see my point.

Anyway, I’ve never had a need to go to this conference before as I’ve not worked with plants or animals (except malaria, but that’s a disease, even though technically an animal) so I thought I’d go to a wide variety of talks* to see what the craic was.

*There’s everything from wheat to water buffalo, insect genome assembly to livestock breeding.

One of these that seemed vaguely relevant to the project was a talk on the genetics of cherries. These are a big deal in Japan, where the speaker was from, with red skinned fruit and white flesh being the most desirable traits.

£106 for 40 cherries anyone?

£106 for 40 cherries anyone?

Some interesting stuff in this talk- apparently cherries have ~44,000 genes in a 350Mbp genome (humans have ~20,000 in a 3,000Mbp genome) and most trees there are bred from only a few (2 or 3 I think) original sources.

This talk was coming to an end and I was about to leave when up pops a lady with an announcement about the “Rosaceae Rosexec meeting” that was in a couple of days’ time. Blackberries are a member of this fruit family so I decided to crash the meeting (not really, I asked politely and was invited to attend).

As is fairly routine at these sorts of things, there was a ‘stand up and introduce yourself and your research’ bit at the beginning which is all well and good. Me being new, and that I got a bit lost^ trying to find the room, I ended up near the back of the room and was one of the last to speak up.

^PAG is a pretty big conference, there are over 3000 people there and there are dozens of rooms where talks/meeting/workshops happen.

Up I get and proceed to tell people that we’re sequencing the blackberry genome to a largely pleased audience when I notice one person giving me the daggers.

I’d already noticed her and was planning on chatting later as she mentioned blackberries in her intro. The rest of the meeting was great, lots of good work being done on soft fruit.

So at the end of the meeting I go and introduce myself again and explain what we’re doing in a bit more detail. Turns out that Margaret (Blackberry geneticist, not the Iron Lady) has already started sequencing the species and has sunk a bunch of her laboratory start-up seed money into it so that was why she was a bit miffed.

This was, however, the start of what I hope will be a very fruitful [ahem] partnership! After I’d told her that we were planning on releasing the data publicly and would be happy to finish the rest of the sequencing (as part of a new collaboration) things started looking up. We’re now working together, with other fruity people, to get this done. The combined efforts mean the cost is spread around nicely - and now I have actual experts in fruit genomes to help!

The lessons learnt here:

  • Don’t assume there’s only one species, there may be many that look the same (to the untrained eye)
  • Don’t be afraid to call people out of the blue, most often they’re as helpful as can be
  • Conferences are great for meeting people to work with
  • A bit of luck never hurts!

Finally, I met a chap at the Rosexec meeting who must have googled the 25 Genomes project whilst there as he approached me afterward with a bit of sage advice. We’re planning on sequencing the New Zealand Flatworm (it’s an invasive species in the UK) and he said we really should consult the Maori on this, which is now happening – updates to follow (if it’s interesting that is).

About the author

Dan Mead is the 25th Anniversary Sequencing Project Coordinator, for the 25 Genomes Project for the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Cambridge.

More on the 25 Genomes Project