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SynBio Forum: Engineering Complex Systems in Biology

Join us for our Michaelmas 2018 SynBio Forum as we explore engineering complex systems in biology. We'll start with short talks by industry leaders on AI tools and methods followed by two keynote speakers. Afternoon tea, a dinner buffet and a drinks reception will be provided for discussion and networking opportunities.
When Oct 29, 2018
from 02:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Old Divinity School, St. John's College, St Johns St, Cambridge CB2 1TP
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Short talks on artificial intelligence tools and methods by Microsoft Research, Nvidia, Mathworks, and more.

Afternoon tea

"Swarm engineering across scales" by Sabine Hauert (Assistant Professor of Robotics, University of Bristol)

Swarm engineering allows us to design self-organised systems that work in large numbers (>1000), and at small scales (<1 cm). Swarm strategies are either inspired from nature (ant colonies, fish shoals, bird flocks, cellular systems) or are automatically discovered using machine learning and crowdsourcing. Demonstrated applications range from the deployment of swarms of flying robots to create outdoor communication networks, or the use of 1000 coin-sized robots to form structures and explore the environment, to the design of nanoparticles and synthetic bacteria for biomedical applications. Ultimately, we aim to develop a unified framework for the engineering of swarms across scales.

"Major synthetic transitions: from protocells to Earth's Terraformation" by Ricard Sole (ICREA research professor (Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studied), Universitat Pompeu Fabra, head of the Complex Systems Lab)

Evolution is marked by well-defined events involving profound innovations that are known as ‘major evolutionary transitions’. They involve the integration of autonomous elements into a new, higher-level organization whereby the former isolated units interact in novel ways, losing their original autonomy. All major transitions, which span multiple scales and include the origin of life, cells, multicellular systems, societies or language (among other examples), took place millions of years ago. Are these transitions unique, rare events? Have they instead universal traits that make them almost inevitable when the right pieces are in place? Are there general laws of evolutionary innovation? In order to approach this problem under a novel perspective, we argue that a parallel class of evolutionary transitions can be explored involving the use of artificial evolutionary experiments where alternative paths to innovation can be explored. These ‘synthetic’ transitions include, for example, the creation of nanocells, the artificial evolution of multicellular systems or the emergence of language in evolved communicating robots. Moreover, we can also consider the creation of synthetic ecosystems and how to use them to engineer our biosphere. These alternative scenarios could help us to understand the underlying laws that predate the rise of major innovations and the possibility for general laws of evolved complexity.

5:30pm and onwards
Dinner buffet and drinks reception


Speaker Bios

Sabine Hauert
Assistant Professor in Robotics at the University of Bristol in the UK (

Sabine's research focuses in designing swarms that work in large numbers (>1000), and at small scales (, a non-profit dedicated to connecting the robotics community to the world. As an expert in science communication with 10 years of experience, Sabine is often invited to discuss the future of robotics and AI, including in the journals Science and Nature, at the European Parliament, and at the Royal Society. Her work has been featured in mainstream media including BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Economist, TEDx, WIRED, and New Scientist.


Ricard Sole

ICREA research professor (Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies), Universitat Pompeu Fabra, head of the Complex Systems Lab (

Ricard's current research focuses in understanding the evolutionary origins of complex systems, using both mathematical models and experimental approaches based on synthetic biology. He has proposed the concept of Synthetic Major Transitions as a unifying framework to explore the origins of innovation in evolution using a parallel approach, namely our potential for building or simulating synthetic systems that can recreate past evolutionary events. This includes the origin of protocells, multicellular systems, symbiosis, cognition and language. Another research area deals with Unstable Evolutionary dynamics, namely the dynamics of biological systems (particularly RNA viruses and cancer) that exhibit a tendency towards high genetic instability as part of their adaptation potential. Moreover, he also introduced the concept of "Terraforming" endangered or human-made ecosystems to avoid catastrophic shifts. The success of this approach will require the development of a new synthesis involving multiple scales and conceptual frameworks, from synthetic biology and cellular circuits to ecological communities.

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The Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative provides a hub for anyone interested in Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge, as well as commercial partners and external collaborators.