School programs show teens where fusion of engineering, biology can take us

School programs show teens where fusion of engineering, biology can take us

September 23


The Kansas City Star

Life forms beamed to Earth by probes on Mars?

Pandemic-fighting vaccines emailed at light speed around the world?

It was as if Blue Valley North High School senior Muriel Eaton was a 5-year-old girl again, wide-eyed in a universe where everything seemed possible and amazing.

She and about 50 other high school students from across the Kansas City area were listening to science world rock star J. Craig Venter’s tales of where the fusion of biology and engineering is taking us.

Synthetic food? No more exhausting resources to raise cattle and hogs? The end of agriculture as we know it?

When she was 5, Muriel watched a tarnished penny dropped in vinegar, and then out it came, shiny like new.

“I said, ‘Is it magic?’ ‘No. It’s science!’”

When Venter talked of how DNA’s code of life — the four nucleotides represented as G, A, T, C — can be converted into a computer binary code of zeroes and ones, she and other students said they felt the same amazement.

“He started synthetic biology,” said Muriel, 17, who wants to be a molecular biochemist. “He’s changed one species into another. Things I do on a computer, he did it in the lab.”

Fast-changing industries in Kansas City that are starving for the next generation of thinkers need students to feel the thrill, said Tom Sack, the interim chief executive officer and president of MRIGlobal, which invited students to hear Venter at its annual dinner earlier this month.

“We need people in the intersection of information technology and the sciences,” Sack said. “We need engineers who can build that work. How better to get kids excited than to meet someone like Dr. Venter?”

Venter has been a dynamic and sometime controversial force in science. He may be best known for leading a team that was the first to sequence the human genome. He also helped create the first cell with a synthetic genome.

The digital and biological worlds are interchangeable, he told the Kansas City audience of scientists, researchers and students.

“All life is a DNA software system,” he said. “We are DNA-driven cellular machines.”

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