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North to the Future: The Merging of Bio and Nano

In 2007, seventeen prominent researchers gathered in Ilulissat, Greenland — a town where dogsleds are common and townspeople sail in a fjord filled with enormous icebergs. The unlikely topic that brought them together: “The merging of bio and nano: towards cyborg cells.” Still, with specialties ranging from single molecule physics to systems biology, scientists from four continents arrived to discuss what would happen as nanoscience and biology blended together at the level of cells and molecules. Perhaps most intriguing, could it lead to the creation of cyber-life?

In 2007, the first Kavli Futures Symposium convened to discuss the blending of nanoscience and biology.

These and related questions were at the heart of the first Kavli Futures Symposia — a series of scientific meetings dedicated to topics of emerging importance in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. As Dave Auston, the Foundation's president, explains, “The Kavli Futures Symposia aim is to address key issues facing future developments and directions in specific fields, in part by defining and guiding the development of research in these fields." The Symposia do this by providing the framework, guidance and part of the resources for the Kavli Institutes to collaboratively identify and lead important dialogues in their fields.

Signatories of the statement include (left to right): science writer Philip Ball, Scott Fraser, Jay Keasling, John Glass, Petra Schwille, David Bensimon, Julie Theriot, Freeman Dyson, Joe Howard, Hiroaki Kitano, Steve Chu, Dre Endy, Paul McEuen, Bob Hazen, Angela Belcher, Bob Austin, Cees Dekker

Proposing the topic for the first Symposia were two scientists on different sides of the Atlantic. On one side was Cees Dekker — a biophysics professor with the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology. On the other side was Paul McEuen, physics professor associated with the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

Together, they developed, organized and then participated in a dialogue that proved memorable not only for the depth of the discussions, but for a conclusion that surprised many with an unanimous statement outlining “a vision for the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology."

A Chance to "Chat"

The result has much to do with how Dekker and McEuen conceived the environment for the symposium — and not simply its remote location. As McEuen recalls, they wanted to re-create something like the retreats he had enjoyed while at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “A chance for a group of faculty folks to get together in an isolated environment and chat,” he would later say.

Most important, however, was deciding what would be discussed. For this, it was agreed: the topic would be the convergence of nanotechnology with synthetic biology. In particular, the symposium would explore what would happen as one science aimed to develop the processes and materials for imitating living things, while another offered the promise of creating artificial life at the atomic scale. It would explore the possibility that science might redefine the meaning of life by reducing to clear-cut physical rules the basis for engineering living cells, or, on the other side of the coin, that biology might prove simply too complex to be reduced to physics. Also on the agenda would be the topic of engineering life — whether science would make such a thing possible, and the implications if it did.

Dekker remains delighted with how the pieces all came to together, beginning with the support he found for an idea that was not only outside the box, but left the box in the closet. As for McEuen, finding support proved relatively simple, in part thanks to the unique mission of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science. The Cornell Institute was created to serve as a catalyst for thought and imagination in nanoscience — not by funding specific research or experiments, but by bringing together a diverse range of scientists to share their ideas and visions for nanoscale science and technology. “When Paul approached me with this idea,” said Robert C. Richardson, director of the Institute, “I knew immediately this fit what our institute is all about.”

It also fit with the mission of the Kavli Futures Symposia. “We were extremely pleased when the institutes offered this opportunity for our inaugural symposium,” said Auston.

The Inaugural Kavli Futures Symposium

 The result came 18 months later when, in June 2007, an eclectic group of researchers gathered to look at the tantalizing future of synthetic biology through the lens not of just one scientific discipline but of many. They gathered not to present research or papers, but simply talk and exchange ideas. In many instances, these scientists, were meeting each other for the first time.

Over five days, they engaged — often with passion, sometimes with furor. And while the dialogues were invigorating, perhaps most important, scientists who had never met or shared ideas before left the symposium comparing notes and finding new partners to explore this frontier.

As Dekker recalled, “We started off from simple questions such as, ‘What are the concrete possibilities where nanotech will impact biology?’ But in the course of all the discussions, the issues were getting bigger and bigger: Where will the engineering approach of biology lead to? How will our new understanding of cell biology and all its complexity affect the way we view life? How will synthetic biology affect society?” McEuen and Dekker were particularly interested in gauging the potential for creating artificial life or hybrid life (the “cyborg cells” of the event’s title) based on a mix of artificial and natural components.

The group, in fact, reached broad consensus on several points. “Initially we went in thinking that there’s nano and bio, and that bio can help nano and vice versa,” McEuen said. However, the meeting evolved toward a view that, for the foreseeable future, scientists would be working with natural cells rather than creating substitutes. “For the moment, nanoscience will be able to hyper-engineer life to do certain things but in the foreseeable future, you should not expect to see little artificial things running around,” he said.

Other points of agreement were included in a statement issued by the symposium’s participants. These included the need to develop “hardware platforms” for synthetic biology and to conduct fundamental research aimed at “exploring the software of life.” The group also strongly recommended the forming of a professional group to monitor risks and oversee ethical issues of synthetic life.

Moving Forward and Looking Back

Steep challenges likely lie ahead. As McEuen noted, the more one learns about the detailed workings of cells, the more each cell seems to have its own rules, and the harder it seems to formulate general principles that account for all the details. Biology, he states, is not so easy to reduce to physics – which suggests that the engineering of life requires a sophistication of thought far beyond what McEuen calls “the old Newtonian watchmaker” model, the “top-down, human way of building things.”

Still, McEuen looks back on Ilulissat as a success not because it produced answers to big questions but because it put those questions front-and-center in some of the world’s best scientific minds, and it established a network of intellectual and personal connections that “will lead to big things down the road.” Dekker shares similar sentiments: “These people came from such different corners of science that many of them did not even know the others, despite their great scientific status in their own fields. Getting these people together to discuss these big questions was truly interesting. The fact that they agreed unanimously on the content of the Ilulissat statement was a remarkable extra.”

Or as McEuen summed it up, “The honest answer is that you got a bunch of people to meet each other and have a conversation. That sounds trivial, but it is not.”