Participants

Steven A. Benner is a polydisciplinary scientist who helped launch the field of synthetic biology by generating the first synthetic gene to encode an enzyme more than thirty years ago. He runs his own non-profit research institute, serving as director of the Florida-based Westheimer Institute at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME). One research focus throughout his career has concerned questions of how life might have emerged on Earth and what form it might take elsewhere in the cosmos. Dr. Benner has used synthetic biology to define potentially universal features of life by synthesizing alternative DNA molecules, using paleogenetics to resurrect and study ancestral genes and proteins from now-extinct life on Earth, recreating pre-biotic chemistry to model the chemical origin of life, and defining constraints that indicate that life on Earth had its origin on Mars. His work has contributed to our understanding of the structure of natural molecular biology and had widespread benefits in human medicine. In particular, a technology he developed has been used to personalize the care of patients infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses, detect infectious agents responsible for respiratory diseases, and surveil environments for RNA viruses. A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and took both B.S. and M.S. degrees in biophysics and biochemistry the same year, Dr. Benner went on to study chemistry with Robert Burns Woodward and Frank Westheimer at Harvard University, earning a Ph.D. in 1979. He then became a Junior Fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows and taught chemistry at Harvard for four years before joining ETH (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, where he conducted research for a decade and served as professor and chair of the laboratory of biomolecular chemistry. In 1997, Dr. Benner accepted a professorship in biochemistry at the University of Florida. He also held a professorship in the department of anatomy and cell biology in Florida’s College of Medicine and continues on its faculty as an adjunct professor. Named V.T. and Louise Jackson Distinguished Professor in 2004, he left the university the following year to establish FfAME, where he has served as president and distinguished fellow for the past decade, and to found the Westheimer Institute. He also is the founder of two companies, EraGen Biosciences and Firebird Biomolecular Sciences. Dr. Benner has worked with NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for nearly two decades, using his second generation DNA model to develop detectors for potentially alien genetic materials. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has held a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship and a Sloan Foundation fellowship and is the recipient of the Anniversary Prize of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies, Columbia University’s Arun Guthikonda Memorial Award, the B. R. Baker Award given by the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Sigma Xi Senior Faculty Award. In addition to some 350 papers published in scientific journals, he is the author of Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method, published by FfAME Press in 2009 to convey to general audiences how scientists set out to answer big questions.