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Bioeconomy Distinguished Lecture Series

About this event

NSF invests in fundamental research to support biotechnology and advance the U.S. bioeconomy across the sciences and engineering. 

Presented by NSF's Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee and NSF Directorates, this distinguished lecture series will bring in individual speakers and panels representing the science and technology funded by a Directorate every month.  Speakers will present on research and broader impacts in areas associated with biotechnology and the bioeconomy that are of interest broadly across the foundation.

All sessions will begin at 11 a.m. Eastern. Individual lectures will run until 12 noon, including question and answer, and panel sessions will run until 1:00 p.m. All sessions will be conducted virtually.

Viewing links for those lectures that do not have them listed below will be provided shortly. All sessions will be recorded and viewable shortly via YouTube after the event.

Thursday, June 16, 2022 11:00 a.m - 12:00 p.m
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and CISE)
Domitilla Del Vecchio, PhD (MIT)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering

View on YouTube: https://youtu.be/9sky1ooiqn0

The Future of Engineering Biology: Why We May Not Get There
About 20 years ago the first two human-made genetic circuits were built in living cells, demonstrating for the first time our ability to perform rational design with biological hardware. A new field was born, called “Synthetic Biology,” with a mind-blowing vision in which genetic circuits made of biomolecules could be automatically designed to achieve capabilities such as curing cancer, regenerating damaged tissue, developing bio-inspired ways to detect molecules, creating new biomaterials, and producing new forms of energy. Today, more than 20 years later, despite remarkable successes, we are still largely unable to engineer sophisticated genetic circuits that behave as intended. This is especially due to lack of robustness of human-made genetic circuits to changes in intra- and extra-cellular context.  For example, although these circuits perform well in defined lab conditions, changes in nutrients, temperature or the simple activation of other cellular genetic components prevent them from functioning as intended. How can we then use such human-made genetic systems in real-world applications, where intra and extra-cellular conditions will vary unexpectedly? Only by achieving robustness.

In this talk, Del Vecchio will illustrate how systems and control theory, which has been instrumental to achieve robustness in traditional engineering systems like electronics, telecommunication, and aviation, can be adapted to tackle issues of robustness in engineering biology. The adaptation of control design techniques to the new physical domain of biology, however, is not straightforward and requires substantial re-thinking of existing approaches and often the development of new solutions. Although these solutions are promising and have demonstrated initial success, there are still many more problems related to a lack of robustness. The talk will thus conclude with an outlook on critical needs and potential solution avenues. 

Bio sketch is available in the flier linked below.

Further lectures to be announced


Past Lectures:

Thursday, December 3, 2020 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and CISE)
Mark Bathe, PhD (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Professor, Department of Biological Engineering
Co-Chair, MIT New Engineering Education Transformation

View the lecture on YouTube: https://youtube.com/video/GZ0p9-H_gio/

A Tale of 2 Strands: From Genomes to Origami, Vaccines, Data Storage, and Back
Society faces innumerable grand challenges in the 21st Century, ranging from uncontrolled pathogenic outbreaks to exponentially growing data and computational needs that exceed the world’s supply of silicon, to next-generation sensing requirements for safe autonomous vehicle navigation and health monitoring. As scientists explore diverse material substrates to help address these challenges, DNA has emerged as a powerful biological medium due to its unique ability to fabricate arbitrary, virus-like structures at the nanometer-scale, store information at a density that vastly exceeds even flash memory, perform logic-based sensing and computing, as well as organize photonic elements to mimic quantum processes in photosynthetic bacteria and plants. In this presentation Bathe shared his work in several of these areas, with a focus on fabricating virus-like particles to rapidly screen vaccine candidates for emergent pathogens, and using DNA as a “hard-drive” with random access capabilities that could in principle operate at the yottabyte-scale for archival data.


Thursday, January 14, 2021 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and OISE)
LaShanda Korley, PhD (University of Delaware)
Distinguished Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Associate Director, UD Center for Research in Soft Matter and Polymers (CRiSP)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLzHGFJHyGg

Bio-inspired and Sustainable Design: Towards Functional Materials
Materials that are found in nature display a wide range of properties, including responsiveness to the environment, signal transmission, and the ability to adapt to support life. Learning from nature or biomimicry can be a powerful tool in designing, developing, and accessing the next generation of synthetic materials and systems. Supported by the NSF PIRE program, Korley discussed her Center efforts to utilize inspiration from nature to design new materials that can change toughness in response to their environment, are safer and more effective biological implants, will transmit nerve-like electrical signals, and can respond to the environment to initiate biological processes with an eye toward soft robotic applications. Via an international framework, a suite of educational and innovation activities will be described that guide the training of the next generation of global scientists and engineers in this interdisciplinary endeavor. With support from the NSF GCR and DMR, she discussed the implementation of a life cycle management framework and collaborative research to develop performance advantaged materials. Sustainability in the context of new materials design was also highlighted as a pathway for framework for broadening participation in science and engineering fields.


Thursday, March 18, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and ENG)
Lydia Contreras, PhD (University of Texas); Doug Densmore, PhD (Boston University); Julius Lucks, PhD (Northwestern University); and Jennifer Nemhauser, PhD (University of Washington)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-eALuVsKVA

Sowing the Seeds of Convergent Synthetic Design
Abstracts are available in the flier below


Thursday, May 13, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and EHR)
Panel Presentation: Linnea Fletcher, PhD (Austin Community College); Thomas Tubon, PhD (Madison Area Technical College); Russ Read (Forsyth Tech Community College)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnuUajqGqJM

Scoping and Educating the Dynamic Biotech Workforce
Advancing the U.S. bioeconomy will require a growing biotechnology workforce that is well educated and diverse. Located at Austin Community College in Texas and partnering with institutions of higher education, high schools, industry, and non-profits throughout the country, the InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center, an NSF-funded Advanced Technological Education Center, works with the biotech community to scope out workforce needs and address them by educating highly skilled technicians. InnovATEBIO supports a cadre of well-trained instructors and is helping to increase the number and quality of biotechnology education programs, as well as introducing a wide range of underrepresented students to biotechnology.

In this lecture, InnovATEBIO’s Principal Investigators Dr. Linnea Fletcher, Russ Read, and Dr. Thomas Tubon,  discussed their work to lead the biotechnology community to evaluate and meet workforce needs across biomanufacturing and biotech and how preparing the workforce can also increase economic development. They also highlighted unique partnerships they have established through their efforts in workforce development, including partnerships with Manufacturing USA and other federal agencies. The panel described their efforts to broaden participation in the biotechnology workforce including participation in the NSF-funded Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS) and working with industry partners to develop skills standards, improve onshore manufacturing, and increase supply chain security.


Thursday, June 10, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. EST
(Co-sponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and GEO)
Panel Presentation: Tullis Onstott, PhD (Princeton University); Paula Welander, PhD (Stanford University); Andrew Thurber, PhD (Oregon State University); and Kristin O’Brien, PhD (University of Alaska-Fairbanks)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMoFwLAZZKo

Bioeconomic Applications of Extreme Earth Environments
Abstracts are available in the flier below


Thursday, September 9, 2021 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. EST

(Co-sponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO and MPS)
Panel Presentation: Tom Muir, PhD (Princeton University); Ben Garcia, PhD (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis); Lissa Anderson, PhD (National High Magnetic Field Laboratory); and Ping Ma, PhD (University of Georgia)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKqjh5xQ3vk

Deciphering Biological Codes: The Power of Chemical Biology, Biological Physics, Big Data, and AI
Nearly all cells comprising an individual contain the same DNA blueprint, yet humans are a complex amalgamation of ~200 different cell types of various functions. Distinctions lie in which genes are ultimately “switched ON” and translated into proteins that function in the cell — their “proteome.” Epigenetic mechanisms affect biological processes by regulating the ways in which genes are expressed, altering phenotype. By understanding these mechanisms, scientists will be able to better understand key relationships between genotype and phenotype.

Histone proteins play a pivotal role in epigenetic regulation. While there are only five families of histone proteins, their structures and functions are expanded in innumerable ways, including combinations of gene sequence variants and post-translational modifications (PTMs). Understanding these structure-function relationships requires a platform capable of unequivocally distinguishing between nearly identical protein sequences while concurrently identifying and site-localizing all PTMs. Mass spectrometry (MS) has proven essential for identification and quantitation of proteins and their PTMs. Complementing these analytical advances, great strides have also been made in the development of chemical biology approaches that allow precise installation of PTMs into chromatin for downstream biochemical studies. Together, these approaches show great promise in cracking ‘histone code’ regulation mechanisms.   

Analytical and computational technologies, such as statistical and machine learning methods, can also provide insight into biological phenomena. These methods, which rely on new mathematical theory and emerging computing paradigm, help sort through large data sets — the “data deluge” — at a rapid pace and promise to revolutionize many fields on their own and through the creation of novel biotechnologies. Combined, these novel methods could help identify key genetic signatures and mechanisms associated with a disease, leading to the innovation of new treatments.


Thursday, December 16, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and SBE)
Laurel Smith-Doerr, PhD (University of Massachusetts-Amherst); Jason Owen-Smith, PhD (University of Michigan); and Ben Hurlbut, PhD (Arizona State University) 

View the lecture on YouTube: https://youtu.be/arbKDiKXCS4. As there were technical difficulties recording one presentation, slides from all the presenters for this lecture are available below.

Equity, Behavior, and Ethics in the Advancing U.S. Bioeconomy
Abstracts are available in the flier below


Thursday, January 13, 2022 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Building Regional Research and Innovation Activities to Support the U.S. Bioeconomy
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and OIA)
Mel Ustad, PhD (South Dakota EPSCOR) and Ramunas Stepanauskas, PhD (Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://youtu.be/4dID-rDELIU

 Abstracts are available in the flier below.


Thursday, February 3, 2022 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Transforming Bioeconomic Discoveries into Innovative Commercial Technologies
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and IIP)
Christine Santos, PhD (Manus Bio); Will DeLoache, PhD (Novome Biotechnologies); and Dan Widmaier, PhD (Bolt Threads)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://youtu.be/4FbCfjHUhgA

Abstracts are available in the flier below.


Thursday, April 28, 2022 9:30 a.m - 10:30 a.m
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, Climate Change Coordinating Committee, BIO, OISE, and GEO)
Pavel Kabat, PhD (International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO))
Secretary-General of HFSPO
Co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (group award to the IPCC authors)

View the lecture on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRv1N1R2Y9Y

Advancing the Inclusion of Biological Processes in Climate Change Modeling
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a Russian, Ukrainian and Soviet mineralogist and geochemist, the founder of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, and an important pioneer in the scientific bases for the environmental sciences, hypothesizes, in his 1926 book “Biosphere”, that life is the geological force that shapes the earth. He was one of the first scientists to recognize that the oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere result from biological processes, and already during the 1920s he argued that living organisms could (re)shape the planet in the same manner as any geological or physical force.

Yet, it has taken long time to recognize the fundamental role of the terrestrial and marine biosphere in understanding and modelling the Earth’s climate system. Just 30 years ago, most (physical) climatologists were still convinced that we only need to understand atmospheric and ocean dynamics and how these interact and are coupled, to be able to model global climate and its changes due to anthropogenic forcing. The Earth land-surface played a marginal, and heavily oversimplified, “inert” role.  When the first global dynamic vegetation models (DGVMs) were developed and combined with climate models back in the nineties, a whole array of fundamental problems surfaced, most of which were very persistent and extended into the current generation of Earth system and climate models. These include – by way of example - questions of biological controls of plant water and nutrient uptake, atmospheric carbon dioxide uptake, photosynthetic assimilation and growth, emissions of biogenic aerosols and interaction with cloud formation processes, the autonomous adaptive behavior of living systems, and scaling methodologies from a basic process at the molecular level to regional and global levels. Most of these processes are still over-simplified and over-parameterized even in the current generation of our models, and lead to major and persistent uncertainties, which in turn are often again addressed by numerical /computing and statistical (ensembles) methods and tools, rather than by calling on increased understanding of underlying fundamental (biological) processes.

One of the reasons behind this clearly unsatisfactory situation is a lack of systemic collaboration between fundamental biology science communities and the earth system/climate research and modelling community. In my lecture, I will discuss specific examples of how beneficial such a collaboration could be, not only for basic understanding of the climate system, but also in researching ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change and will be advocating for breaking further the academic, disciplinary, institutional and funding silos as an urgent step in addressing these key 21st Century challenges.


Thursday, May 19, 2022 11:00 a.m - 12:00 p.m
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and ENG)
Bill Bentley, PhD (University of Maryland)
Robert E. Fischell Distinguished Chair of Engineering
Inaugural Director of the Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices

View the lecture on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Pn9i6uMwUmA

Microelectronics has transformed our lives. It has changed the way we collect, process, and transmit information. The intersection between microelectronics and biology has also been transformative – ionic currents that control cardiovascular and neural systems are detected and even corrected using electronics (e.g., EKG & defibrillators). Yet, the microelectronics world has barely “sampled” the vast repertoire of chemical information in our biological world.  Take for example the human immune, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems – they are largely opaque to the methods of electrical sensing and communication. In biology, information is often contained in the structure of its molecules – molecules that move from place to place and based on their structure, convey information and provoke a response.

We envision new processes and deployable products that open the dialogue between biology and microelectronics – that eavesdrop on and manipulate biological systems within their own settings and in ways that speed corrective actions. We view biofabrication and synthetic biology as integral technologies for achieving this vision. Synthetic biology, often visualized as an innovative means for “green” product synthesis through the genetic rearrangement of cells, can also provide a means to connect biological systems with microelectronic devices. Cells can be reprogrammed to close the communication gap that exists between the electrons and photons of devices and the molecules and ions of biology. This is enabled, in part, through redox mediators – biological carriers of electrons that transfer “packets” information to and from electronics. Biofabrication, the assembly of biological components using biological means or mimics thereof, offers a means to close the fabrication gap – a gap that stems from the disparity between biological systems, assembled of labile components using built-in error correction, and devices, built of potentially toxic materials using error prevention and byproduct exclusion.  Here, innovative materials, electronics, biomolecular and cellular engineering strategies can be developed to mediate “molecular” communication - information transfer to microelectronic systems and back. New systems and devices are continually emerging that integrate abiotic and biological components (e.g, animal-on-a-chip devices, chip-based manufacturing systems, etc.) at a hierarchy of length scales.  New systems may emerge that eavesdrop on and electronically guide cellular consortia, vastly expanding our synthetic biology repertoire while utilizing increasingly complex raw materials.

We suggest that a great many of our society’s grand challenges in sustainability, food, energy, and medicine may be addressed by developing tools that open lines of communication between the biological and electronics worlds.