First Exploratory Round Table Conference in Shanghai on Synthetic Biology

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The first Exploratory Round Table Conference or ERTC, on the topic of “Synthetic Biology” took place in Shanghai under the auspices of the Shanghai Institute for Advanced Studies from October 19th to 21st, 2010. The event kicks off a new series of annual conferences which are intended to provide a joint platform for scientists of both Max Planck Society (MPG) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) together with international leading scientists to discuss and evaluate newly emerging and rapidly evolving fields of research. The two supporting organisations thus create visions and seeds towards the establishments of topical areas at the leading edge of science. As such, the ERTC adds a novel instrument to ongoing processes of priority-setting in the further development of the research portfolio of both organisations.

Synthetic Biology is often described as an initiative that calls for more engineering in biology. The field draws on methods and principles established by a wide array of disciplines including mathematics, computer sciences, biophysics, engineering, biology and bioinformatics. The overall aim is to look at complex biological systems from an engineering perspective as to understand, characterize and translate nature into synthetic architectures and entities. This is expected to create ‘minimal life forms’ as a platform for artificial processes like photosynthesis. Where does this field stand today and what are its promises? The ERTC covered three major areas of Synthetic Biology: A first line of research aims at developing synthetic systems by reducing complexity of existing biological systems. The long-term goal is to generate semi-synthetic living cells for biotechnological applications. A second line of investigation envisions the creation of fully artificial organisms from scratch. The imminent challenge is a gradual increase of complexity from the basic elementary building blocks known today to entire organelles and eventually organisms. In a third, still not very developed research direction, model-based system analysis is applied to design functional and robust synthetic biological systems, i.e. design theory precedes the experiment.

As part of the ERTC process, articles summarizing and critically reviewing the state-of-the-art on subthemes of Synthetic Biology were generated which provided the basis for discussions and deliberations on the current ideas and prospects of the field, and a report is communicated to the Presidents of MPG and CAS and science policy makers.

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