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Synthetic Biology: life engineering moves into your garage

We're on the path to juggling biological components the same way we now juggle bits. Does this thrill you or scare you? Four visionaries sketch the huge upsides and weird downsides of bringing digital-style control and a hobbyist approach to the globby mess we are today. Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute participates as moderator of the discussion.

Chris Anderson is a bioengineering researcher and educator. He received his Ph.D. in 2003 from the Scripps Research Institute for expanding the genetic code through genetic engineering. Currently he is a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on foundational technologies and applications of synthetic biology, a ground-up approach to genetic engineering with diverse applications in healthcare, environmental remediation, bioenergy, chemicals and materials production. Chris is best known for his ongoing work on developing therapeutic bacteria for the treatment of cancer for which he was recognized with Technology Review's TR35 award in 2007.

Denise Caruso co-founded the nonprofit Hybrid Vigor Institute in 2000 to study and practice collaboration in the service of new solutions for complex social and scientific problems. She recently published Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet, and continues to work on projects both in academia and the private sector to improve the practice of risk analysis for science and technology-related innovations. For the five years prior to founding Hybrid Vigor, Denise wrote the Technology column for the Monday Information Industries section of The New York Times.

Gregory Benford is a physicist, educator, and author. He received his Ph.D. in 1967 from UC San Diego. Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine, where he has been a faculty member since 1971. He conducts research in plasma turbulence theory and experiment, and in astrophysics. He has published over a hundred papers in fields of physics from condensed matter, particle physics, plasmas and mathematical physics, and several in biological conservation. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Cambridge University, and has served as an advisor to the Department of Energy, NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy. In 1995 he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and the public comprehension of it. He is the author of over 20 novels, including Jupiter Project, Artifact, Against Infinity, and Timescape. He is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award.

Andrew Hessel, MSc, iGEM Program Development, Alberta Ingenuity Fund, is a biologist and author working to promote synthetic biology and open source biology. In his view, synthetic biology allows forward engineering, permitting scientists to write code de novo, and allowing logical, fully understandable evolution of biological outputs ranging from single proteins to synthetic bacteria. Andrew advocates the use of open source principles for creating DNA code. He believes open biology could potentially create a more diversified and sustainable biotechnology industry.

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