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SB7.0 Panel Will Address the Biodiversity Crisis and How Synbio Can Help

It is becoming ever clearer that the world is entering a sixth mass extinction event driven by human activity and the levels of biodiversity we see today are gravely threatened.  Global climate change is already impacting the stability of countless species and the ecosystems they comprise, from the tiniest microbes to the greatest megafauna.  What role can the field of synthetic biology play in providing solutions for the biodiversity crisis?  At SB7.0, the Seventh International Meeting on Synthetic Biology, nine experts will gather in a panel on Biodiversity and Conservation to discuss just that.

Omar Akbari is an Assistant Professor of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside.  After receiving his PhD, Akbari completed a post-doctoral position at the California Institute of Technology where he applied synthetic biology to combat to vector-borne diseases.  Today, Akbari’s research continues in this same vein as he works to develop synbio solutions for infectious diseases transmitted by mosquitos.  Specifically, his lab is interested in the development of gene drives to promote mosquitos’ resistance to human diseases such as yellow fever, Zika virus, and dengue fever.  Akbari’s research is of particular import in a world where the range of many species of mosquito is likely to be altered by the shifts in temperature and precipitation that will accompany global climate change.

Frank Rheindt is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore.  The broad purpose of his lab’s research is to understand the evolution of avian biodiversity and determine how this knowledge can contribute to conservation solutions in the face of a looming biodiversity crisis.  Rheindt’s lab combines field and lab work with computational analysis to study such phenomena as genetic introgression and complex evolutionary radiation.  He also investigates phylogenetic relationships and population genetics among avian species in the Wallacean Region of the Indonesian archipelago, a region that is geographically important for its contribution to our understanding of biodiversity.

Madeleine Van Oppen splits her time equally between her positions as Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Chair in Marine Biology at the University of Melbourne.  Her research looks into coral reef restoration, a topic of great concern given recent estimates that 19% of the world’s coral reefs have been killed by the downstream effects of human activity.  In addition, Van Oppen researches the assisted evolution of coral that is more resilient to the kinds of environmental disturbances that are expected to accompany global climate change.  She also investigates the symbiotic relationship between coral and eukaryotic organisms on a molecular level.

Ryan Phelan is the Executive Director and cofounder of Revive & Restore, a segment of The Long Now Foundation dedicated to the “genetic rescue” of endangered and extinct species.  Genetic rescue constitutes using molecular biology to identify genetic variables that contribute to species decline and then using genome editing to resolve these vulnerabilities in extant species or to revive extinct species.  Currently, Revive & Restore is contributing to the genetic rescue of Asian elephants, black-footed ferrets, and Hawaiian native birds as well as the revival of passenger pigeons, wooly mammoths, heath hens, and great auks.  Revive & Restore is just the latest in Phelan’s long line of successful entrepreneurial ventures in biological sciences, though it is one of the first to turn her attention from personalized medicine to biodiversity.

Kent Redford is the principal of Archipelago Consulting, where he facilitates conservation efforts by helping clients to implement successful strategies, establish connections, and follow best practices in conservation.  In this capacity he has worked with such clients as the Global Environmental Facility, the U.S. National Park Service, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  With 30 years of expertise in the field, Redford is very well-published on topics revolving around the social, cultural, and political dimensions of conservation and sustainability.  His publications and contributions have shaped the visions and goals of organized conservation efforts worldwide.

Sonja Luz is the Director of Conservation at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, the managing organization for four of Singapore’s largest and most popular zoological institutions that are dedicated to protecting biodiversity in Southeast Asia.  Trained as a veterinarian, Luz has rendered her services around the world from Qatar to the Philippines to her position in Singapore.  As the former Consulting Director for Conservation Science and Zoological Operations mat Ocean Adventure in the Philippines, she has a wealth of experience working with institutions that rely on visitors to fund and raise awareness for conservation efforts.

Terry Sunderland is a Principal Scientist in the Forests and Livelihoods program at the Center for International Forestry Research, a nonprofit research institution that investigates solutions for global  forest landscape management.  There he leads the research domain titled “Managing the trade-offs between conservation and development at the landscape scale.”  His work aims to link conservation directly to development of economically-sound livelihoods based on natural resources.  Before taking his position at CIFOR in Indonesia, Sunderland spent fifteen years conducting field research in Africa and published extensively on the conservation and economic sustainability of forests.

Madhu Rao is the Regional Advisor of the Asia Program within the Wildlife Conservation Society.  She is also the Development Coordinator of the Asian Species Action Partnership, an initiative committed to preventing the extinction of endangered species of vertebrates in Southeast Asia.  Her expertise lies in deploying conservation solutions in countries with limited technical and financial resources to commit to such causes.  In particular her research is interested in the governance of protected areas, the exploitation of wildlife, and conflict between humans and wildlife.

Drew Endy is an Associate Professor Bioengineering at Stanford University and one of the founders of the field of synthetic biology.  Among Endy’s many accomplishments are the development of biological transistors and establishment of a biological engineering major at MIT.  He also is co-founder of the BioBricks Foundation, which aims to provide an open-source database of biological parts for standardized genetic engineering, and co-organizer of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.  His research into the redesigning of genomes has important implications for addressing many existing and impending problems in biodiversity and conservation.

Be sure to your calendar for June 14th at 1:30 PM for Session 5:  Biodiversity & Conservation on how we sustain dialog across a plurality of perspectives.


Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson is a freelance science writer and adjunct professor of biology at the Maricopa Community Colleges in the Phoenix metropolitan area. She holds an M.S. in Biology from Arizona State University and has a background in both wet lab research and venture capital consulting. She lives in Tempe, AZ with her dogs, cats, chickens, and goat.

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