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. Download Full Image

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.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Retired homicide investigator headlines 3rd annual ASU Prison Education Conference

March 17, 2014

On March 28 ASU’s Prison Education Awareness Club (PEAC), Department of English and School of Social Transformation want you to turn yourself in.

Or, more accurately, they want you to turn out – for the 3rd annual Prison Education Conference. The conference is slated for 10 a.m to 5 p.m., in the University Club Heritage Room, on ASU’s Tempe campus. Download Full Image

This year’s conference features keynote speaker Marshall Frank, a retired police captain from Miami, Fla., who led more than a thousand homicide investigations during his career and has since written hundreds of op-eds and articles about the state of America’s justice system.

In his most recent book, “Criminal InJustice in America,” Frank explores inequities of the prison system, “a multi-billion-dollar industry, which would collapse if there was a sudden downturn in inmate residency.” Perhaps that’s why the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but a staggering 25 percent of its prisoners.

Critics have hailed “Criminal InJustice as “challenging,” “thought-provoking” and “daring.”

The conference also will feature a free screening of “Zero Percent,” an award-winning documentary about the Hudson Link education program at Sing Sing Maximum Security Prison. This program provides a college education to inmates at the prison, and is remarkable for the fact that not a single graduate of the program has returned to prison. That’s compared to a nationwide recidivism rate of about 60 percent.

After the film, there will be a Q&A session with a second keynote speaker, Sean Pica, the director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

“Zero Percent” will also be shown the night before, at 7 p.m., March 27, in BAC 116. Pica will speak after the screening as well.

Other speakers at the conference will include Michelle Ribeiro from the State Penitentiary of New Mexico and Mark Jones from the Arizona Department of Corrections. Lunch will be provided. The conference and film screening are free and open to the public. RSVP required for the conference only.

For more information or to RSVP, contact

The Department of English and the School of Social Transformation are academic units of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU.

Written by Emerson Hardebeck

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English