Synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to altering components of biological systems, like genes and cells, towards creating new and revised living things (watch the video below for an introduction). It's arguably the most radical, cutting-edge laboratory science field today, and one that calls on its scientists to grapple with ethics as well as biotechnology. At the forefront of this life science revolution is the University of California Berkeley-led consortium SynBERC: the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, with partner colleagues at UCSF, Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. Just this week, principal synbio investigators from these institutions came together with industry scientists and ethicists for a symposium on the UCB campus titled Programming Life: the revolutionary potential of synthetic biology, co-sponsored by SynBERC and Discover Magazine. Whether we are going to continue down the road of reengineering life was not the question so much as how we will go about that delicate task and what the implications and promises are of such a bold project.
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The Brain Activity Map project could be the next big federal life science research endeavor, with no less a goal than the mapping of the entire living brain and all its neuronal activity. Like the Human Genome Project of the 90's, the not insignificant financial outlay is being presented as an investment that will net even bigger returns, both in terms of new technology and a vastly increased understanding of the mind. President Obama is expected to include the multi-billion dollar, decade-long funding in his upcoming budget proposal, and neuroscience research was a topic he addressed specifically in his recent State of the Union address.
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