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Synthetic biologist to discuss creating life in the lab at ASU lecture

March 17, 2014

Steven Benner, a chemist and synthetic biologist, will give the 2014 Beyond Annual Lecture, 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 21, in Neeb Hall, on the Tempe campus.

The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by ASU’s Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science.

Benner, who has argued that life as we know it may have actually originated on Mars, will give the talk “Creating Life in the Lab: Can it really be done?” Benner is a Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology – the design and construction of biological systems and devices.

Benner has said that our experience with terrestrial organisms has skewed our perceptions of what life is. For example, all known species on Earth have descended from a single ancestor. They therefore all use the same core chemistry and the same molecular biology. But together, they represent just one example of “life” as a phenomenon, biasing our view of the phenomenon in general.

Accordingly, nothing has the potential of altering the view of life more than having in-hand a second sample. We might find it on Mars, Titan or elsewhere in the cosmos, Benner says, or we might even find it hiding on Earth. However, the most direct way to study a second sample is to create it ourselves in the laboratory. And that is precisely what Benner has been doing, in groundbreaking work that he will explain in the lecture.

Among its more noteworthy achievements, Benner’s research group was the first to create an artificial genetic system and a totally new type of protein, incorporating amino acids not employed by the genetic code as we know it. These are essential first steps on the road to producing life, but not as we know it. Aside from probing the fundamental nature of what it means to be living, Benner’s work promises major clinical applications in such fields as HIV research, for example.

“From ancient times, humans have dreamed of being able to make life from scratch,” said Paul Davies, director of ASU’s Beyond Center. “Steven Benner is blazing the trail to do just that. Although some people fear that ‘playing God’ might backfire on humanity – as in Mary Shelley’s famous novel about Frankenstein’s monster – advances in molecular biology have largely removed the mystique surrounding the living state. We no longer regard life as some sort of magic matter, but rather as a complex chemical system that we can understand and control.

“Quite apart from the profound nature of his work, Benner is a highly entertaining speaker and lucid expositor,” Davies added. “The audience is definitely in for a treat.”

While the event is free and open to the public, seating is on a first-come basis. To RSVP for the event, please go to, or call (480) 965-3240.

The Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Sciences is a research unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.