The 2,348th Meeting of the Society

May 8, 2015 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The 84th Joseph Henry Lecture

Synthetic Biology

The Technology Engine of the 21st Century

Pamela Silver

Professor, Systems Biology
Harvard Medical School

Sponsored by Millen, White, Zelano & Branigan, PC

About the Lecture

During the 20th century scientists elucidated much of the fundamental basis for life, culminating, in a sense, with sequencing the human genome. We now have detailed knowledge of the inner workings of cells, tissues and organisms. Much as the development of synthetic chemistry fueled the development of the chemical industry, and the development of microchips fueled the computer industry, as a result of our knowledge of the fundamentals of living organisms and the recent development of methods for manipulating them, we are poised on the beginning of a new industrial revolution based on biology that will impact health, agriculture, chemical production, carbon capture and energy. We will use the foundations of biology to engineer cells to perform useful functions, much as one would program a computer. We will, for example, design cells to act as factories for therapeutics and to cleanly generate a range of chemicals. The social and political ramifications of this disruptive technology are vast, and engineering biology with be the defining technology and pose many central challenges of the 21st century. This lecture will present the technologies and discuss their implications.

About the Speaker

PAMELA SILVER is Professor of Systems Biology at the Harvard Medical School and The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. She co-directs the Harvard undergraduate team for the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM), a program that she initiated. She was a founder of Harvard Medical Schools’ Department of Systems Biology, served as the first Director of Harvard University’s Doctoral Program in Systems Biology, and was one of the first members of the Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Previously, Pamela was Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. Before coming to Harvard, Pamela was Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. Pamela discovered the first nuclear localization sequence (NLS)and in subsequent studies elucidated many of the mechanisms of nuclear localization. She characterized the receptor for NLSs, discovered the first eukaryotic DnaJ chaperone, and carried out early genome wide studies of protein interactions within the nucleus. In addition, she and Bill Sellers discovered molecules that block nuclear export and formed Karyopharm Therapeutics to develop their therapeutic potential. Pamela was among the first scientists to use GFP-tagged proteins to study protein-specific processes in living cells. Her current projects relate to reprogramming eukaryotic cells, novel therapeutic design strategies, and bioengineering approaches to harnessing energy from sunlight and for capturing carbon to prevent its release to the atmosphere. She has served on numerous government and private advisory panels including the NAS/NRC Study on Network Science, the OSD/NA Biodefense Workshop, the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund, the Novartis Oncology Program, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Paul Glenn Institute for Aging Research, Exxon Mobile Research, the Council of the American Society for Cell Biology, the Committee for Women in Cell Biology and she has presented to several members of Congress. She also has served on numerous editorial boards, and was the Editor of Molecular Biology of the Cell. Pamela has received many awards and honors. To name a few, she was appointed Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School in 2012, received a NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, an NIH MERIT award and an Innovation Award from BIO, was named a Basil O’Connor Research Scholar of the March of Dimes and an Established Investigator of the American Heart Association, was named a Radcliff Fellow, delivered an NIH Directors’ Lecture, and been named one of the Top 20 Global Synthetic Biology Influencers. Pamela earned her BS in Chemistry and PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California. She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University as a Fellow of the American Cancer Society and of The Medical Foundation. She is an avid runner and sailor.


President Larry Millstein called the 2348th meeting of the Society to order on May 8, 2015 at 8:02 p.m. He announced the order of business and welcomed new members to the Society. As the evening’s lecture was the 84th Joseph Henry Lecture, President Millstein said a few words about Joseph Henry and his contributions to the Society and he, then introduced the speaker, Pamela Silver of Harvard Medical School. The lecture was entitled “Synthetic Biology: The Technology Engine of the 21st Century.”

Dr. Silver stated that synthetic biology is the technology of the century. Biology is the best chemist there is, she said, pointing out that biological structures are very sensitive, can send and receive signals, can be easily duplicated, and are modular. We will begin to harness biology in profound ways in the 21st century.

The Synthetic Biology Working Group at MIT has been working to make biological techniques easier, more predictable, and faster to engineer. One way to think about this is that engineering life is like programming computers. Scientists edit DNA “code” to program cells to perform specific functions. Current processes for doing this are tedious. One goal of synthetic biology is to build standardized biological circuits and techniques to do the programming efficiently.

Scientists have more DNA material to work with than ever before. The price of sequencing DNA has fallen rapidly. It is now possible to find genes from humans and non-humans that encode proteins with desired functions. And high-throughput analytical techniques provide fast feedback in the development process.

Some critics think synthetic biology is dangerous. But Dr. Silver said scientists have a responsibility to develop it. She discussed the safety concerns that arose when recombinant DNA techniques were first developed. She noted that effective rules were developed to ensure safety and that fears about the technology turned out to be unfounded. As synthetic biology moves forward, she believes that ethical and social concerns can be addressed to the satisfaction of scientists and the public.

An early success for synthetic biology was synthetic insulin. Today scientists are working on much more complicated problems. She discussed one research program that took a gene pathway from a rare plant and put it in bacteria to make a drug to treat malaria. The work took eight years and cost several hundred million dollars. A goal of synthetic biology is to speed the process and lower the costs so that it can be readily applied to real-world problems.

She then discussed some additional problems and synthetic biology solutions. One was energy sustainability. Solar power is sustainable, she said, but we are able to use only a very small fraction of power from the sun. Plants and microbes do better. But photosynthesis evolved about 3.5 billion years ago when atmospheric O2 levels were lower and CO2 levels were higher. It is very inefficient in sequestering carbon. Research is focusing on photosynthetic microbes that do better at current levels of oxygen, such as cyanobacteria, responsible for about 50% of oceanic photosynthesis. Scientists have reprogrammed cyanobacteria to produce sugar, a high-value commodity. The process is more efficient than growing sugar cane. The same approach could be used to make fuel and other commodities.

Dr. Silver then discussed the “Bionic Leaf.” Her colleague Dan Nocera developed an inexpensive, inert catalyst for splitting water in the presence of sunlight. Together they developed bacteria that can capture energy by consuming the hydrogen. The system’s efficiency is about 5%, as good as algae and better than corn.

There are many therapeutic and diagnostic uses of synthetic biology, she said. One project is to develop cells that remember the response to a pathogen, and that then can destroy it if further exposure occurs. In a sense, these will be biological computers, responding to an input signal based on a programmed memory. Other projects are to engineer bacteria to detect exposure of mice to antibiotics and to count the number of times a cell has divided (a biological counter).

Finally, she discussed a more recent project, joining fashion to biology: clothing embedded with living, photosynthetic cyanobacteria.

In closing, Dr. Silver said the possibilities are enormous, and she asked the audience: What do you want to build?

After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to join the Society. At 9:28 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2348th meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Attendance: 118
The weather: Partly Cloudy
The temperature: 24.7°C
Respectfully submitted,

Zeynep Dilli
External Communications Director & Recording Secretary