April 2010

Life Sciences and the Issues of Our Time

A Public Affairs Symposium You Won’t Want to Miss


NFTHContinuing its tradition of staging a premiere symposium on a major public policy issue at each annual meeting, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee has decided to go global at Experimental Biology 2010 in Anaheim, Calif., by sponsoring a symposium titled “Life Sciences and the Issues of Our Time.”

The symposium’s theme consists of recommendations from the National Research Council’s report “A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution.” The report, released this past fall, examined how recent technological and scientific advances in biological science and the growing interdisciplinary collaborations between scientists and engineers can be applied to solve major, interrelated and, heretofore, largely intractable problems confronting a world with declining resources and a growing population.

The Public Affairs Advisory Committee has arranged a stellar lineup of speakers, starting with the symposium chair, Phillip Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sharp, a Nobel laureate, was co-chair of the NRC report. (The report’s other co-chairman, Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, is a member of the Public Affairs Advisory Committee and a longtime public citizen of science, serving on numerous National Institutes of Health, scientific society and NRC panels.)

Other speakers include:

Nina Fedoroff, a plant biologist at The Pennsylvania State University and longtime ASBMB member, who currently serves as science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It also was announced recently that Fedoroff is president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Catherine Woteki, a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, who is now a senior executive with Mars Inc. and is an active member of the American Society for Nutrition.

Gary Stacy, a plant biologist at the University of Missouri, who chairs the public affairs committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists and the Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research Advisory Committee.

A fourth speaker is being recruited; please visit the ASBMB meeting Web site or the ASBMB Today Web site for an update.

The NRC report focused on food, the environment, energy and human health. The ASBMB symposium will examine ways to meet the challenges outlined in the report:

Generate food plants to adapt and grow sustainably in changing environments. The result will be a body of knowledge and new tools, technologies and approaches that will make it possible to adapt all sorts of crops for efficient production under different conditions, which would help feed a growing world population.

Understand and sustain ecosystem function and biodiversity in the face of rapid change. More knowledge and new tools and technologies are needed to understand how ecosystems function, to measure ecosystem services, to allow their restoration if damaged and to minimize harmful impacts of human activities and climate change. An integrated approach is needed, involving biology, ecology, climatology, hydrology, soil science; environmental, civil and system engineering; mathematical modeling techniques and computational science. This integration could generate breakthroughs in monitoring ecosystem function, identifying ecosystems at risk and developing effective interventions to protect and restore ecosystem function.

Expand sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. Making efficient use of biomass to make biofuels is a systems challenge, and this is another example of an area in which the New Biology can make a critical contribution. At its simplest, the system consists of a plant that serves as the source of cellulose and an industrial process that turns the cellulose into a useful product. There are many points in the system that can be optimized. The New Biology offers the possibility of advancing the fundamental knowledge, tools and technology needed to optimize the system by tackling the challenge comprehensively.

Understand individual health. The goal of a New Biology approach to health is to make it possible to monitor an individual’s health and treat any malfunction in a manner that is tailored to that individual. Between the starting point of an individual’s genome sequence and the endpoint of an individual’s health is a web of interacting networks of staggering complexity. The New Biology can speed up fundamental understanding of the systems that underlie health, help develop tools and technologies that will lead to more efficient development of therapeutics and enable individualized, predictive medicine.

The symposium will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m., Sunday, April 25, in room 304A of the Anaheim Convention Center.

Peter Farnham (pfarnham@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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