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Synthetic biology offers new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration

IRVINE, Calif. -- More than 160 participants gathered this week for the seventh annual National Academies Keck FUTURES INITIATIVE conference. This year's topic, "Synthetic Biology," brought together scientists, engineers, and medical researchers to explore the engineering, scientific, and social issues surrounding the emerging field of synthetic biology.

Bonnie L. Bassler, professor of molecular biology at Princeton University and this year's conference chair, challenged the attendees to work at bridging the gap between what synthetic biology already has achieved and what it may someday make possible. "The promise of synthetic biology" Bassler said, "could come from engineering new ways to fight disease, producing renewable energy sources, or synthesizing materials more cheaply and efficiently. For scientists, the excitement will come from pushing the boundaries, moving the field forward in unexpected ways, and in doing so, discovering new principles."

To encourage further interdisciplinary work, the National Academies announced the availability of $1 million in seed grants up to $100,000 each for new lines of research identified at the conference. Recipients of the competitive grants will be announced next April.

To help participants overcome differences in terminology used in various fields, the organizers offered a number of podcast "tutorials" focusing on many aspects of synthetic biology. The podcasts were created by NPR News science correspondent Joe Palca and feature interviews with experts in the field. These tutorials are available online at

During the conference, researchers participated in one of 12 research teams to explore diverse challenges. Among the challenges were to identify technologies and tools that would make biology easier to engineer; how to understand natural genetic circuits using synthetic biology; how to design communities of cells; how to move beyond genetics to engage chemical and physical approaches to synthetic biology; and the role of evolution and evolvability in synthetic biology. Representatives from public and private funding organizations, government, industry, graduate writing students, and the media also participated.

Researchers also presented posters describing their latest research.


Encouraging better communication among scientists in various fields and between scientists and the public is another key component of the FUTURES INITIATIVE. During the conference, the National Academies held an awards dinner to honor their 2009 Communication Awards winners:

  • Neil Shubin for his book YOUR INNER FISH: A JOURNEY INTO THE 3.5-BILLION-YEAR HISTORY OF THE HUMAN BODY about evolution from primitive fish to humans
  • Mark Johnson, MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, for his newspaper series 'Targeting the Good Cell' about reprogramming human cells
  • Larry Adelman, Llewellyn M. Smith, and Christine Herbes-Sommers for their documentary UNNATURAL CAUSES: IS INEQUALITY MAKING US SICK? about complex issues affecting public health (California Newsreel in association with Vital Pictures Inc.)
  • Vikki Valentine, Alison Richards, and Anne Gudenkauf for NPR's CLIMATE CONNECTIONS, a multimedia Web site to explain the impacts of global climate change (NPR News in partnership with NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

The awards recognize excellence in communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the public. The winners of the four $20,000 cash prizes spoke to conference attendees about their experiences communicating science.


Contact: Maureen O'Leary
National Academy of Sciences

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