Steven Benner


Steven Benner left his distinguished faculty position at the University of Florida in 2004 to found The Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology and the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, after starting his career at Harvard and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His research seeks knowledge about the ancient origin of life, and looks for the essential, universal features of life by studying from four different directions. with the NASA Astrobiology Institute, by developing tests for life on other planets, by using Paleogenetics to resurect and study ancient proteins that may have belonged to long-extinct ancestors, by recreating pre-biotic chemistry to explain the chemical origin of life, and by synthesizing an artificially expanded genetic alphabet led to a revolution in our understanding of the structure of DNA. 

He started his graduate work at Harvard under perhaps the most famous name in Organic Synthesis, Bob Woodward, who passed away, continuing and receiving his PhD under Frank Westheimer. Dr. Benner's first faculty position was at Harvard, but he was frustrated by the requirements of the NIH grant reviewers. Benner was the first researcher to synthesize a gene, creating the field of synthetic biology. An opportunity to pursue his more esoteric research drew him to Zurich Switzerland, where he created the field of Paleogenetics, which used the ability to synthesize an arbitrary gene to synthesise hypothetical genes which may have belonged to the common ancestor of all cows and grazing mammals. After returning to the US to take a faculty position in the Chemistry and Molecular Biology departments at the University of Florida, Benner began working with NASA, using his second generation DNA model to develop detectors for potentially alien genetic materials. 

Despite pursuing research that perplexed the NIH as too ambitious or experimental, many of Benner's creations in the fied of synthetic biology have turned out to have incredible significance in human medicine. By using an artificial base pair he invented, pharmaceutical giant Chiron was able to develop a test for viral diseases like HIV and Hepatitis which is used on more than 400,000 patients a year to accurately measure viral load. Benner is also the founder of two successful companies, EraGen Biosciences and Firebird Biomolecular Sciences.

Take a look at his blog A Tempting Science.

Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution