Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Travel Back in Time to Synthetic Biology 3.0, Zurich

For those interested in synthetic biology (and if you're not you should be), videos of almost all the talks from Synthetic Biology 3.0 in Zurich are now available for download. Here are my personal favorites and some reflections on the conference:

George Church, Harvard Medical School
Reading , Writing and Evolving Genomes
Although I did find the talk a bit disjointed and rushed (I guess my brain was too slow to keep up), this talk gets you up to speed on the state of the art and the current challenges in genome-scale DNA synthesis. If you look really closely you can see me in the front row struggling to take in everything displayed on the giant IMAX-like projector screen a few feet away.

Pam Silver, Harvard Medical School
Designing Biological Memory and Logic
Pam had some great videos of eukaryotic cells programmed with genetic circuits to show fluorescent "memory" through mitotic generations. Also a nice little idea about reprogramming microorganisms to make hydrogen for fuel.

Ham Smith, The J Craig Venter Institute
The Quest for a Minimal Cell: a Synthetic Genomics Approach
Undoubtedly the most anticipated and hyped talk with Venter's God-like visage and imminent "second creation" being splashed all over the media in the weeks leading up to the conference. Nobel Laureate Ham Smith was surprisingly low-key, and showed everyone that real molecular biologists can still kick it old school and remain at the cutting edge. I especially loved the solution for pipette-free genome handling. Ham showed how his team have successfully transplanted a genome to change one species of Mycoplasma to another, and it looks like the Venter group now really are poised to make the first synthetically-encoded cell.

Miroslav Radman - University of Paris
Reconstructing the genome from hundred pieces: Deinococcus radiodurans
I felt privileged to take in this talk by the brilliant and animated Radman, in which he reviewed his fundamental contributions in the discovery of the SOS response, a form of post-replication DNA repair. With more recent data, he showed how the extremophilic bacterium
Deinococcus radiodurans seems to be able to miraculously reassemble its entire genome after it is fragmented into tiny pieces upon dessication or irradiation. Some very elegant experiments further illuminated the mechanistic details of the process, mediated through homologous recombination. With the talk following others who are attempting to assemble full genomes from smaller synthetic precursors in vitro, the immediate question from the audience was whether the assembly of synthetic genomes might somehow instead be performed by endogenous machinery of the recipient cell itself.

Laurie Zoloth, Northwestern University
Hide and Seek: The Ethics of Curisoity and Security in Synthetic Biology

Despite the fact that Laurie is an ethicist and religious scholar, this was one of the most though-provoking scientific discussions I've come across. Exploring the idea of secrecy in science and its impact on society, the talk was full of subtle provocations that I'm pretty sure are still gnawing away somewhere deep in my subconscious. The talk was followed by a panel/audience discussion which was also excellent.

Jeff Tabor, UCSF
A Massively Parallel Biological Edge Detector
One of the major goals of synbio is leveraging the sophisticated circuit design techniques pioneered in electrical engineering to genetically program living cells. Lot of people are talking, but so far I think Chris Voigt's lab is the group most obviously putting this concept to work, with visual results that can't be denied. Jeff Tabor of the Voigt lab showed how an elegantly-designed circuit (involving intra- and extracellular components) can be used to produce sophisticated images with bacterial cell "pixels" (cellixels?).

Justin Gallivan, Emory University
Engineered bacterial chemonavigation
One of the most well-spoken presenters at the conference, Justin gave a great talk with some nice videos that pretty convincingly demonstrated successful reprogramming of bacterial chemotaxis using a riboswitch-based detector circuit.

Winston Timp, MIT

3D Living Cell Microarrays Assembled Using Optical Tweezers
Check out the priceless videos of Winston deftly pushing cells around a dish with lasers. As if driven by unseen forces (he actually used a joystick) the cells are assembled one-by-one into neat little rows and columns. Beautiful!

Ron Weiss, Princeton
Artificial Signaling Pathways for Pattern Formation and Programmed Tissue Generation
Ron laid a lot of the conceptual groundwork for synthetic biology in his PhD thesis "Cellular Computation and Communications using Engineered Genetic Regulatory Networks" under Tom Knight at MIT. His images of fluorescent cells programmed to form spatial patterns were printed on the Synbio3.0 conference organizer's T-shirts, and have pretty much attained the status of cult symbol. Ron is working on making circuits to reprogram mammalian embryonic stem cell differentiation and behavior and discussed this in his talk.


Bayman said...

Sorry links to each streaming video talk don't seem to be working. Have to follow the link at the top of the post and pick individual talks for now...

Kamel said...

"Despite the fact that Laurie is an ethicist and religious scholar..." Ha ha.

Great post. I haven't listened to them all yet, but the stuff I have has been interesting.

Bayman said...

A little poke there I suppose, but not at all to belittle the value of the humanities perspective. On the contrary, it was awesome to see modern science from another well-informed, disinterested point of view.