Keynote Speakers

Steven Benner

Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Synthetic Biology
Artificial Life in Molecular Form

Former V.T. & Louise Jackson Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Florida Department of Chemistry. He was also a faculty member in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology. Benner left University of Florida in late December 2005 to found The Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology (TWIST) in Honor of Frank Westheimer. He also created the Foundation For Applied Molecular Evolution (FFAME). Benner has also founded EraGen Biosciences and Firebird BioMolecular SCiences LLC.

The Benner laboratory is an originator of the field of "synthetic biology", which seeks to generate, by chemical synthesis, molecules that reproduce the complex behavior of living systems, including their genetics, inheritance, and evolution.


Oron Catts

University of Western Australia, Biotechnology & Art
Are the Semi-Livings Art(ificial)? Shifting goalposts in relations to life

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator whose work with the Tissue Culture and Art Project (which he founded in 1996 with Ionat Zurr) is part of the NY MoMA design collection and has been exhibited and presented internationally. In 2000 he co-founded SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory housed within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia. Under Oron’s leadership, SymbioticA has gone on to win the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008.

In 2009 Oron and Ionat were recognised by Thames & Hudson’s “60 Innovators Shaping our Creative Future” book in the category “Beyond Design”, and by Icon Magazine (UK) as one of the top 20 Designers, “making the future and transforming the way we work”.

Oron has been a researcher at The University of Western Australia since 1996 and was a Research Fellow at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston from 2000-2001. He worked with numerous other bio-medical laboratories around the world. In 2007 he was a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University. He is currently undertaking a “Synthetic Atheistic” residency which is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (USA) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) to exploring the impactions of synthetic Biology; and is a Visiting Professor of Design Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London.


Benjamin Kerr

University of Washington, Experimental Evolution
From toxic bacteria to flammable plants: The evolution of altruism in structured communities

Ben Kerr received his Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Stanford University in 2002. While at Stanford, he worked with Marcus Feldman on modeling the evolution of flammability in resprouting plants, the evolution of animal learning, and the evolution of altruism. He also worked with Brendan Bohannan on experimental evolution within microbial systems and with Peter Godfrey-Smith on some philosophical issues arising in the levels of selection controversy. Ben then spent three years as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota, where he worked with David Stephens on modeling impulsive behavior in blue jays, with Tony Dean on the evolution of cooperation within a microbial host-pathogen system, and with Claudia Neuhauser on spatial dynamics within model population genetic systems. Ben joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 2005.

One of the hallmarks of living organisms is the change they induce in their abiotic and biotic environments. For instance, earthworms affect soil structure, beavers build dams, bees construct nests, trees lower light levels under their canopies, butterflies pollinate flowers, etc. Through their development, physiology, and behavior, organisms alter the world in which they live and these effects can feed back to influence their ecology and evolution. This process has been labeled niche construction (or, alternatively, ecosystem engineering). Using a combination of analytical, simulation-based and lab-experimental techniques, Ben and his collaborators have focused on four biological systems that possess strong niche construction elements: (1) fire-prone flora with plant traits that enhance flammability, (2) learning organisms that alter the form and frequency of their stimuli, (3) bacteria that produce anti-bacterial toxins, and (4) hosts and pathogens that continually coevolve. Recently, we have focused on how the incorporation of spatial structure can drastically affect the eco-evolutionary dynamics of these and other niche construction systems. In particular, he is extremely interested in how altruistic forms of niche construction evolve in relation to various forms of population structure.


Radhika Nagpal

Harvard University, Self-Organizing Systems
Termite-like Robots and Robot-like Termites

Radhika Nagpal is an Associate Professor in Computer Science, in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She is also a core faculty member of the Harvard Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering, where she co-leads the BioRobotics Platform. Before joining, she spent a year as a research fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. She was a graduate student and postdoc lecturer at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and a member of the Amorphous Computing Group and the Bell Labs GRPW graduate fellowship program. She has received the Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship Award (2005), NSF Career Award (2007), the Thomas D. Cabot associate professor chair (2009), and the Borg Early Career Award (2010).

Her research group is interested in engineering and understanding self-organizing systems; they investigate many topics on the border of CS and biology. Two main areas are: (1) Biologically-inspired multi-agent systems: algorithms, programming paradigms, and modular/swarm robotics (2) Biological multi-agent systems: computational models, multicellular morphogenesis, collective behavior.


Jack Szostak

2009 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Evolution in Action
The origin of life and the emergence of Darwinian evolution

Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. He was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres.

Szostak has made contributions to the field of genetics. He is credited with the construction of the world’s first yeast artificial chromosome. That achievement helped scientists to map the location of genes in mammals and to develop techniques for manipulating genes. His achievements in this area are also instrumental to the Human Genome Project.

His discoveries have helped to clarify the events that lead to chromosomal recombination—the reshuffling of genes that occurs during meiosis—and the function of telomeres, the specialized DNA sequences at the tips of chromosomes.

Currently his lab focuses on the challenges of understanding the origin of life on Earth, and the construction of artificial cellular life in the laboratory.