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12 Highlights from Schrödinger at 75

Our CEO Vivienne Williams discusses the 'Schrödinger at 75' conference held at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on the 5th and 6th September.

In the words of 2017 Nobel Laureate Michael Rosbash, texting his wife at the end of Day 1 on how the conference was going; "Double Wow!" (or was that "Wow Wow!").

I have to admit, the morning I was on my way to the National Concert Hall, I was like a giddy school-girl! The line-up was the Electric Picnic (or Glastonbury!) of Science...with no less than 5 Nobel Laureates giving presentations, and an extraordinarily impressive list of pioneering scientists forging new paths across multiple disciplines.

Erwin Schrödinger gave his seminal 'What is Life?' talks in 1943

Organised by Prof. Mike Murphy (University of Cambridge), Prof. Cliona O'Farrelly (Trinity College Dublin, TCD), Prof. Luke O'Neill (TCD) and Prof. Tomas Ryan (TCD), the 'What is Life: Schrödinger at 75' 2 day lecture series was a celebration of the 75th anniversary of 3 public lectures given by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger.

What are the 'What is Life?' lectures, and why were they in Dublin?

In 1939, Erwin Schrödinger had fled from Nazi Germany, and on the invite of then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera came to Ireland. He became director of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), which de Valera (himself a mathematician) had founded.

In 1943, Schrödinger gave three public lectures entitled 'What is Life?' at Trinity College Dublin. In 1944, they were published as a book of the same name. These lectures had an enormous influence on the development and direction of the nascent field of molecular biology, including inspiring the younger James Watson to his studies in the area of the structure of DNA.

The series of lectures in Trinity formed the basis of Schrödinger's book which was shown both in the conference and at an exhibition in the Trinity College Dublin Long Room.

What is the 'Schrödinger at 75' conference?

This week, TCD marked the 75th anniversary of these lectures with a lively 2-day lecture series with some of the brightest minds working in biology today.

When Schrödinger gave his original lectures in 1943, the basis for heredity was the burning question; famously Schrödinger proposed the presence of an 'aperiodic crystal' responsible for this.

The speakers at the 75th anniversary lectures focused on a broad variety of topics, and ranged from 'The Future of Emotion' to 'The Future of AI', 'The Future of Gene Editing' and more topics; synthetic biology, bioenergetics, consciousness, ageing and more. All the talks, in common with Schrödinger's lecture, were future-focused, discussing what biology could become. Below are some of what I thought were the highlights of the conference.

Highlights from the conference:

1. 'The Future of the Brain' - John O' Keefe

The first presentation on The Future of the Brain was given by John O'Keefe, a British-American neuroscientist. He shared the 2014 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine with Norwegian neuroscientists May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser, for their work which contributed to the understanding of neural processes involved in the mental representation of spatial environments.

O’Keefe discussed how he investigated impairments in the cognitive mapping abilities of rats; this had important implications for the understanding of Alzheimer disease, as well as other human neurological conditions in which affected persons fail to recognise their surroundings.

2. 'The Future of Emotion' - Kay Tye

O'Keefe's talk was followed by the very engaging Kay Tye from MIT. Tye spoke about her research in the area of optogenetics, and how it can be used to identify and control connections in the brain that are linked to social behaviors (such as reward-seeking and anxiety).

We sometimes forget that scientists are human, and have a sense of humor...I loved Kay Tye's twitter post from the Long Room at Trinity College :

3. 'The Future of Molecular Biology' - Ada Yonath

Yonath is an Israeli protein crystallographer who spoke in particular about her work on ribosomes. Prof. Yonath was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (along with physicist and molecular biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and biophysicist and biochemist Thomas Steitz) for her research into the atomic structure and function of ribosomes.

At the end of her talk, Prof. Yonath noted that while you get a Nobel Prize for life; the prize for "Best Grandma" is not guaranteed on annual basis... fingers crossed for her for next year!

4. 'The Future of Extinction' - Beth Shapiro

Shapiro gave a brilliant talk! She started by acknowledging (tongue-in-cheek) that she had received some criticism from her book, "How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction", noting that most people don't read the subtitles and thus may have actually need a real-life mammoth in order to clone it! Prof. Shapiro's criticism came in the form of the mother who claimed her daughter was inconsolable, after realising at Chapter 2, that it was, in fact, not possible to clone a mammoth.

Joking aside, Prof. Shapiro's talk was extremely interesting - she spoke about how improving genetic diversity amongst mountain lions, is in fact, increasing the probability of this species surviving extinction; and how such methods could be used across other species.

5. 'The Future of Medicine' - Leroy Hood

Hood is an American biologist who has had a profound effect on science, as a result of his ground-breaking development of instrumentation such as the first automated DNA sequencer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Hood is credited with introducing the term "systems biology", he believes the future of medicine lies in "P4 medicine"; medicine that is "predictive, personalised, preventive, and participatory".

6. 'The Future of Gene Editing' - Feng Zhang

Feng Zhang is the co-founder of Editas Medicine, a genome editing company founded by world leaders in the fields of genome editing, protein engineering, and molecular and structural biology.

Prof. Zhang is a core member of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and gave a fascinating talk about CRISPR Cas9 systems and other Cas protein classifications which are being studied.

7. 'The Future of Biological Engineering' - Saul Kato

Kato is an engineer and tech entrepreneur that returned to science; he founded, financed, built, and sold two technology companies: Sven Technologies, which developed software algorithms and applications for 3D graphics rendering, and WideRay Corp., which pioneered the idea of local ad-hoc wireless content delivery, manufacturing and building a network of several thousand local content delivery points in fifteen countries.

His talk centered around his current work as Prof. of Neurology and Physiology at UCSF where he is working on understanding the brain and behavior of the nematode C. elegans in an attempt to decipher the principles and building of neural computation and cognitive function.

8. 'The Future of Plant Life' - Ottoline Leyser

Leyser a geneticist from the University of Cambridge spoke about The Future of Plant Life, in particular, about how plants' hormones are involved in developmental plasticity, and ultimately how they make decisions.

9. 'The Future of Fruit Flies and Circadian Biology' - Michael Rosbash

Robash is an American geneticist and chronobiologist, and the 2017 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine for his work in contributing to the discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. Prof. Rosbash explained how his work aims to understand the relationship between the fruit fly's circadian circuitry and behavior including the why and how of sleep.

10. 'The Future of Chemistry' - Bernard Feringa

A Dutch synthetic organic chemist from the University of Groningen was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines".

His presentation, entitled, The Future of Chemistry, gave examples of molecular nanotechnology (or nano-robots!) that could result in self-healing surfaces on cars (i.e. a scratch is immediately healed!), amongst other ideas.

11. 'The Future of Aging' - Linda Partridge

A British geneticist from University College London gave a fascinating overview of The Future of Ageing. Acknowledged by the European Commission as one of the grand challenges - our ageing population and how can we support and promote active and healthy ageing; the presentation by Prof. Partridge was particularly important.

Prof. Partridge's presentation focused on how society may cope with an aging population.

Prof. Partridge's presentation highlighted some of her research on the role of nutrient-sensing pathways, such as the insulin/insulin-like growth factor signalling pathway, and on dietary restriction. Her current work is directed at developing pharmacological treatments that ameliorate the human ageing process to produce a broad-spectrum improvement in health during ageing.

12. 'The Future of Consciousness' - Christof Koch

Koch gave the keynote lecture, with the claim he was only invited as he was the only person there that could pronounce "Schrödinger".!

After spending 25 years as Prof. at Caltech, he joined the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, as Chief Scientific Officer in 2011, becoming President in 2015. As a result of his long-standing collaboration with the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, Koch authored the book The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach.

In a short space of time, Prof. Koch touched on some of his research interests - uncovering the neural basis of consciousness and the subjective mind. I particularly enjoyed his comments on how two minds could essentially be connected together - resulting in the sharing of the same thoughts - but long-term, this would ultimately result in the loss of individuality.


So a full schedule! I really enjoyed this overview of what some of the top minds in biology think about what the future will look like.

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