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Chair: Professor Anthony Bull

Abstract: Biology is the planet’s greatest technology, converting sunlight and elements into a myriad of complex, dynamic structures and systems capable of adaptation, self-repair, reproduction and even humour. Inside every cell on Earth, is DNA – the universal code the records the successes of evolution and directs the processes and production of life. The importance of DNA as the code of life has been known for decades, but only since the start of this century have we begun to code it ourselves.

Synthetic biology takes inspiration from computing, but rather than writing code to send binary information to silicon chips, we compose programs with the A, T, C and G bases of DNA to be run inside living cells. Over the last 10 years our research has used this concept to code DNA programs that instruct friendly microbes like yeast to work for us – making drugs, materials and more, or becoming precision sensors for things we want to detect. But can we go further? Instead of just writing DNA code to add new talents to cells, can we rewrite the whole DNA code of the cell’s genome, making life that now runs on code that we have built and designed?

This new goal of synthetic genomes comes with many challenges but will help us better understand how the language of life is written and uncover what is really encoded in the DNA in our cells and those throughout the living world.

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