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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 c

Contact: Maureen O'Leary
National Academy of Sciences

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