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Nelson Series: Kevin Esvelt '04, "Ecological Engineering"

Harvey Mudd College
Event organized by Harvey Mudd College

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“Ecological Engineering and Responsive Science”

The advent of CRISPR-based gene drive systems could enable researchers to unilaterally alter the traits of wild populations, but is it acceptable to develop technologies for engineering the shared environment in secret? We now live in a world featuring technologies never anticipated in science fiction that allow individuals to unilaterally impact millions of others. Might ecological engineering be a catalyst for reforming scientific incentives to favor wiser collective decision-making in order to accelerate advances and avoid global catastrophic risks?

A 2004 graduate of Harvey Mudd College (chemistry and biology), Kevin Esvelt is director of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab, which invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. By carefully developing and testing these methods with openness and humility, the group seeks to address difficult ecological problems for the benefit of humanity and the natural world.

Esvelt is credited as the first to describe how CRISPR gene drives could be used to alter the traits of wild populations in an evolutionarily stable manner (read more in the spring 2016 Harvey Mudd College Magazine- https://magazine.hmc.edu/spring-2016/sculpting-evolution/). By emphasizing universal safeguards and early transparency, he has worked to ensure that community discussions always precede and guide the development of technologies that will impact the shared environment.

Prior to joining the MIT Media Lab, Esvelt wove many different areas of science into novel approaches to ecological engineering. He invented phage-assisted continuous evolution (PACE), a synthetic microbial ecosystem for rapidly evolving biomolecules, in the laboratory of David R. Liu at Harvard University. At the Wyss Institute, he worked with George Church to develop the CRISPR system for genome engineering and regulation, and he began exploring the use of bacteriophages and conjugation to engineer microbial ecosystems.

Admission to this public lecture series is complimentary. Unless otherwise specified, events are held in the auditorium of the R. Michael Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvey Mudd College located at 320 E. Foothill Blvd., Claremont. A dessert reception follows each lecture.