Our ability to engineer life has taken such a flight that we can genetically reprogram living cells and organisms to adopt new functions. This pervasive new technology affects processes beyond imagining and over incredible length scales. From yoctogram (10−24 gram) to exagram (1018 gram), we have improved by 30 million-fold the quality of reading, writing, and editing complex molecules both at the scale of single atoms and of 10 sq. km. ecosystems. These configurations are not only new (nearly infinitely rare), they exist in millions of nearly identical copies - replicated complexity.
Described as ‘the most daring synthetic biologist’, Prof. George Church is a visionary in the fields of genetic sequencing, synthetic biology, genome engineering, and evolutionary biology. In 1984, he developed the first direct genomic sequencing method, which resulted in the first genome sequence. He helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005. He has coined (sometimes controversial) ideas like editing DNA to treat hereditary diseases, editing aging genes to reverse aging, replacing USB with DNA to store digital data, engineering cells that are not infected by viruses, transplanting pig organs to the human body (xenotransplantation), and synthesizing the human genome from scratch.
In this lecture, Prof. Church illustrates the role of complexity in synthetic biology. In his pioneering work, he has shown that by using state of the art genetic modification techniques, biological functions can be created or modulated. Besides this forward engineering approach, he has also been very active in reverse engineering. He was one of the first to investigate the possibility of constructing a minimal cell, by focusing on the bare necessities that are required for a cell to remain living. In his current research, the role of artificial intelligence furthermore has become a predominant factor. In his lecture he will address these different aspects of his seminal work.
Prof. dr. George Church is a professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and a professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT. He leads research on directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new tools with applications in regenerative medicine and bio-production of chemicals. Among his recent work is the development of a technology for synthesizing whole genes and engineering whole genomes faster and more accurately than current methods. He is also Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Technology Center and Director of the National Institutes of Health’s Center of Excellence in Genomic Science.
Complexity lecture series
This lecture is the third in a series organized by the Focus Area Grip on Complexity (Institute for Complex Molecular Systems) together with Studium Generale. The series zooms in on complexity science – a field of study that examines complex challenges, like the prevention of a pandemic or the functioning of democracy. The lectures show how new insights from complexity science help find sophisticated answers to the overwhelming questions our society is facing. They cover fascinating topics such as self-organization, emergence, tipping points, and resilience.
Four themes are discussed during both an introductory lunch lecture for the general audience and an in-depth lecture for experts in the field (Complex Fridays). This lecture series is for anyone who is convinced that modern science can and should play a role in the societal solutions of today and tomorrow.
The first lecture – Towards a new energy system – can be viewed here.
The second lecture – Deep transitions – can be viewed here.