2014/2015: Undercover Biology

On November 5 2014 the ninth edition of the CONGres was held at Amsterdam Science Park. The theme of the conference was ‘Undercover biology’.

Our speakers:
Dr. Andreas Wismeijer
Prof. Dr. Victor Lamme
Dr. Rogier Sanders
Dr. Petra Bleeker
Prof. Dr. Doekele Stavenga
Dr. Fan Liu
Dr. Anne Overduin de Vries
Dr. Ewout Meijer

Dr. Andreas Wismeijer’s lecture:
Secrets: the psychology of what we do not tell
Being in love with your neighbor, suffering from fear of failure, dealing with sexual abuse, having drinking problems, keeping secret homosexual contacts, planning a surprise trip for your partner… Everyone has secrets: big or small, shocking or ordinary. We hide things that others may find offensive to prevent disapproval, punishment, mockery, or, the worst outcome you can imagine, social exclusion. However, the protection offered by a secret has its price. Secrets can lead to worrying and melancholy. What do we know about secrets? Why do we keep them and from whom? How do you keep something secret for years? And is it true that secrets are always bad for you? All these questions will be no secret after this lecture!

Prof. Dr. Victor Lamme’s lecture:
Looking inside the secrets of the soul, On brainreading, neuromarketing and free will
The array of possibilities allowing us to look inside the living brain is expanding at an explosive rate. Developments in the field of brainreading, a technique in which the brain is literally read out, are spectacular. The brain scanner sees what we think or dream. It enables us to communicate with comatose patients. It sees what we really think and want, who we love, and what we want to buy. In a way, the scanner knows more about what inspires us than we do. As such, we are highly malleable in hands of advertisers who manipulate us using neuromarketing techniques. We might think our conscious ‘me’ is pulling the strings, yet in reality there can only be one conclusion: free will is an illusion.

Dr. Rogier Sanders’s lecture:
Why don’t we have a vaccine against HIV yet?
Most vaccines work by inducing protective humoral immunity and ideally an HIV-1 vaccine should induce broadly neutralizing antibodies. However, past and current HIV-1 vaccine candidates have thus far not been able to do so, because many features of the HIV envelope glycoprotein spike, such as variability, flexibility, instability and glycosylation, limit the induction and binding of neutralizing antibodies. One vaccine approach is to create trimeric mimics of the native envelope spike that expose as many neutralization epitopes as possible. Our group has succeeded in generating such trimeric mimics by introducing a disulfide bond between the gp120 and gp41 subunits, complemented with a trimer-stabilizing substitution in the gp41 subunit (termed SOSIP gp140). Soluble, cleaved (SOSIP) gp140 trimers based on the subtype A founder virus, BG505, are highly stable and homogeneous, expose most epitopes for neutralizing antibodies, closely resemble native virus spikes when viewed by negative stain EM, and their high-resolution structure has been determined by cryo-EM and X-ray crystallography. In contrast to previous Env-based vaccine candidates, these trimers induce strong and consistent neutralizing antibody responses against the autologous, neutralization-resistant virus, much more so than a traditional sequence-matched monomeric gp120 vaccine.

Dr. Petra Bleeker’s lecture:
The secret life of plants; weapons of plants and of their attackers
A plant is not mobile and cannot escape the many attackers it faces out in the field. But are they as vulnerable as they appear to be or do they have some secret, or perhaps forgotten, ammunition they can bring into the ever ongoing arms-race between plant and pathogen? I would like to talk about the vision of modern vegetable breeding companies on how research on the immune system of plants can contribute to increased world food production. How do plants arm themselves against disease and how can we use their secret weapons in resistance breeding?

Prof. Dr. Doekele Stavenga’s lecture:
Colorful camouflage by birds, butterflies and beetles
Many birds, butterflies and beetles are strikingly patterned for display and communication. Yet, the patterning can be disruptive, or can have optical properties that only allows recognization when the animals move. For instance, amazon parrots have extremely colorful wings, but they are well-camouflaged when sitting on a tree. Similarly, the upper sides of the wings of the common Peacock butterflies (Aglais io) are brightly patterned, but when at rest the butterflies are virtually invisible due to their dull-brown wing undersides. Very differently, the glass scales at the wing underside of the Common Bluebottle butterfly (Graphium sarpedon) are transparent, showing the green-pigmented wings. The glass scales behave as virtually perfect thin films, and thus act as strong polarizing reflectors. During flight this gives a flashing polarized signal. Jewel beetles (Chrysochroa fulgidissima) have strongly metallic green elytra (wings), which makes them hardly visible when sitting at shiny leaves, but which also act as polarizing reflectors. Insects have polarization vision, but birds, like humans, cannot discriminate polarized light. Insects with polarizing wings thus have a secret channel for communication.

Dr. Fan Liu’s lecture:
What DNA can tell us
Predicting human externally visible characteristics (EVCs) of crime scene sample donors directly from evidence DNA can provide leads in police investigation to find unknown sample donors usually not identifiable via conventional DNA profiling. Recent fundamental and applied research has delivered suitable DNA markers and forensically validated tools for predicting eye and hair color from DNA, and skin color DNA prediction is currently underway. Furthermore, large-scale genetic studies on other human appearance traits have been conducted. In this talk, I will summarize our new findings in the genetics of EVCs, including eye, hair, and skin color, facial shape, facial pigmented spots, body height, baldness, hair morphology, and other age-related traits such as perceived age, wrinkling, and hair graying.

Dr. Anne Overduin de Vries’s lecture:
How sexual behaviour of macaques is kept secret
Sexual behaviour in macaques is controlled by the authority of the alpha male. He aims to keep all fertile females for himself and punishes females and non-alpha males when he discovers them mating. However, females and non-alpha males do not accept this monopoly and have developed strategies to mate secretly without the alpha male noticing. We found that macaques consider the presence of the alpha male before engaging in sexual behaviour. Both non-alpha males and females refrain from soliciting sexual behaviour in the presence of the alpha male. Since both sexes contribute to the concealment of sexual behaviour, secret mating may be the result of a coordinated behaviour. Females and subordinate males may tactically deceive the alpha male, by separating themselves in a coordinated way from the group, indicating tactical deception. Indeed, we found some indication that couples quickly follow each other into a visually separated compartment before engaging in sexual behaviour, but the results were not significant. Therefore, we further investigated the mechanisms behind concealed sexual behaviour. We discovered that secret sexual behaviour in macaques was not based on a strategy to copulate near or behind opaque objects. Nor was it the result of the peripheral positions of non-alpha males. Instead, both females and males actively increase their distance from the alpha male before they initiate sexual behaviour.

Dr. Ewout Meijer’s lecture:
Lie and memory detection: Past, present and future
Of all deception detection tools, the polygraph has the longest tradition. First described almost 100 years ago, it is used in many countries worldwide, most notably in the United States with more recently European countries following suit. Still, the use of the polygraph for the detection of deception has been debated in the scientific literature for almost as long as it exists. In this talk, I will highlight the promises and perils of the use of the polygraph for the detection of deception. This includes application of the widely used control question polygraph test, but also applications of a different testing format used in conjunction with the polygraph, namely, the concealed information test. This letter type of test has also been referred to as ‘memory detection’ and is typically employed to show the presence or absence of crime-related information in suspects.