Bridging the subjects of chemistry and biology, the 7th NCMLS New Frontiers symposium, entitled Synthetic Life, explored the use of chemical technologies to understand complex biological systems, in particular evolution, synthetic genetic and cellular systems. In front of an audience of more than 280 scientists, Prof. Stan Gielen, Dean of the Science Faculty, opened the symposium.
The first session, aptly named, 'Evolution of life' explored efforts to understand the chemistry that led to the emergence of the first living system. Philipp Holliger (UK) presented recent progress on the development and application of strategies to enable the enzymatic synthesis and reverse transcription (and thus replication and evolution) of novel synthetic genetic polymers, termed XNA's. Strikingly information storage is not limited to just DNA and RNA. What was the first genetic polymer of life? and how did proteins evolve function? were the main questions explored by John Chaput (USA), in particular using novel threose nucleic acid (TNA) polymers. William Shih (USA) continued the session by discussing his recent work on customized 3D DNA nanostructures as building blocks for molecular biophysics and their potential medical applications. Cees Dekker (NL) closed the session with his insights into bacterial shape and cellular division.
Alexander van Oudenaarden (NL) opened the second session focusing on how microRNA's confer robustness in biological processes and quantitative rules for the design of low-noise synthetic networks. Joachim Spatz (DE) discussed the geometric and mechanical material constraints in the collective migration dynamics of epithelial cells and the implications during wound healing, embryonic development and oncogenesis.
The first day of the symposium ended with inspiring keynote lecture by Carolyn Bertozzi (USA) focusing on bio-orthogonal chemistries that can be used to specifically explore biomolecules in their native complex settings. Furthermore she highlighted progress towards the development of chemically-modified protein therapeutics and methods for imaging disease-related glycans. The Hans Bloemendal Medal for 2013 was awarded to Professor Carolyn Bertozzi, in recognition of her groundbreaking studies spanning the disciplines of chemistry and biology [ link].
The first day closed with a great party at Landmark Wijnfort Lent with a live jazz band "De Compaenen".
The opening session on day 2, 'Bioengineering', focused on the exciting emerging area of microfluidic tools for single cell genomics (Stephen Quake, USA). Continuing the nanotechnology theme, Donald Ingber (USA) presented an awe-inspiring lecture on his work developing 'organs on a chip' and the ongoing efforts to combine 10 different organ chips to create a 'human body on a chip'. The ultimate aim to engineer an automated instrument for real-time analysis of cellular responses to pharmaceuticals, toxins and other chemicals. Also in this session, Frank Baaijens (NL) and Carl Figdor (NL) presented their work on cardiovascular tissue engineering and the development of synthetic dendritic cells, respectively.
The final session, 'Synthetic life' was opened by Albert Libchaber (USA) on the minimum genetic requirements for a self-reproducing cell. This was followed by Daniel Gibson (USA) who described the recent promising efforts in the Craig Venter Institute for building a synthetic cell capable of self-reproducing. Finally, Wilhelm Huck (NL) and Sven Vogel (DE) presented their work on the creation of artificial cell-like environments in picolitre droplets for studying the basic physical chemistry of the cell and the intelligent design of minimal in vitro systems for studying actin-myosin-membrane interactions, respectively.
For the third year we had a poster session during the 2 days of the Symposium. An excellent jury, has awarded three best poster prizes. They received a certificate and an amount of money.
An article on this symposium was published in the NRC.