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Synthetic Biology Symposium Brings Together Science Leaders from Three Nations

Synthetic biology, an emerging discipline that melds engineering with the life sciences, seeks to design and build new biological systems and functions to solve problems in health, energy, materials synthesis, and more.

But with the discipline still in its infancy, scientists from around the globe are faced with important questions that will inevitably shape the field. What will the synthetic biology of the future look like? How can we foster the growth of a new discipline in a time of limited funding? And how can we capitalize on its excitement while dealing with the new social, legal, and ethical questions that come with it?

The academies of science and engineering of three countries – the United States, United Kingdom, and China – recently gathered for the final of three related symposia on this topic, “Six-Party Symposia on Synthetic Biology.” The event, which featured remarks by two Northwestern faculty members, marked the first time the three countries’ academies had come together for a scientific conference.

“The fact that this topic has brought these three countries together speaks volumes, I think,” said Michael Jewett, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. “People are seeing significant potential for synthetic biology, both academically and in terms of its meaningful contribution to society.”

Jewett, a synthetic biologist who uses cell-free systems to create protein therapeutics and unnatural polymers for materials, medicine, and nanotechnology, was invited to present at the final symposium in Washington, D.C. on June 12 and 13. The gathering focused on next-generation tools, platforms, and infrastructure necessary for continued progress in synthetic biology, as well as the associated policy implications.

In a panel discussion, “Enabling the Next Generation of Leadership and Community,” Jewett shared his thoughts about how synthetic biologists should support and sustain emerging investigators. Discussion topics included educating “whole-brain” engineers that are both analytically skillful and creative problem solvers; emphasizing “beyond-the-bench” skills that aid young investigators in interactions with the public and policymakers; developing strategies at the national and international level to support research that is high-risk and high-reward; and fostering partnership with industrial and commercial entities.

Laurie Zoloth, director of Northwestern’s Center for Bioethics, Science and Society and professor of medical humanities and bioethics and religion, also shared her perspectives on legal and ethical implications in a roundtable discussion, “Rebuilding the Social Contract.”

The symposia were a collaboration between the National Academy of Sciences; Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; the Board on Life Sciences; the National Academy of Engineering; the Royal Society; the Royal Academy of Engineering; the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and Chinese Academy of Engineering.

In another honor, Jewett was recently selected to take part in the National Academy of Engineering's 18th annual U.S. Frontiers of Engineering symposium, an honor for engineers ages 30 to 45 who are performing exceptional engineering research and technical work.

The participants -- from industry, academia, and government -- were nominated by fellow engineers or organizations and chosen from approximately 300 applicants.

The symposium will be held September 13 to 15 at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, and will examine serious games, vehicle electrification, climate engineering, and engineering materials for the biological interface. Alan I. Taub, retired vice president of General Motors global research and development, will be a featured speaker at the symposium.