Life at the Nexus of Microbial & Synthetic Ecology
A Workshop @ ALIFE 2019 (Newcastle UK)
July 30, 2019
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Workshop Aim

To bring together an exciting cross section of people from the fields of synthetic ecology, microbial ecology, artificial life and beyond to develop and consolidate emerging new approaches and ways of thinking to design and manipulate microbial ecosystems. Our scope spans naturally-occuring communities to synthetic ecosystems, as well as artificially-selected or manipulated “hybrid” systems.


Much of the focus within synthetic biology has been at the molecular and cellular levels, in which the bounds are drawn around the autonomous cell. Similarly, the majority of work within the artificial life community on living technologies and proto-living systems has focussed on the cell or proto-cell, with limited attention to the ecology and inevitable system-environment interactions. These approaches often struggle to produce stable and resilient systems and miss the opportunity to achieve this by leveraging the richness of ecological interactions associated with living systems and the emergent possibilities. Within the artificial life community, however, there is a long history of considering living and proto systems in all their interactions, with philosophical and engineering approaches most suited to emergent and evolving systems whose boundaries and function may not be well-defined. We believe that the tools and perspectives of this sort of approach have much more to offer towards the practice of “synthetic ecology” than more traditional reductive approaches, which try to “engineer out” complexity.

Microbial ecologists, on the other hand, have traditionally focussed on natural and significantly complex communities (e.g., soil/human microbiomes), as well as qualitative characterizations that have not yielded clear predictive and unifying principles of technological relevance. Until recently, multiple extant and sometimes ancient technologies (such as agriculture, fermentation/traditional human foods) have been excluded from the domain of “living technologies” and have thus been neglected as relevant, simpler systems of study, and ignoring a rich source of insight and inspiration.

By focussing on microbial and synthetic ecosystems and connecting the tools and approaches of artificial life and ecology we seek to redress the balance and stimulate new, more complexity-sensitive approaches to living technologies. We also hope to open the door to new strategies for interacting with multiple vital human-microbial ecosystems that surround us, whose importance and fragility is being made increasingly visible with global change. For example, issues of contemporary concern include the development of antimicrobial resistance, the need for sustainable intensification of agriculture, and the uncertain response of soil and ocean communities to climatic change.

Themes and Call for Abstracts

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract by Friday, May 31, 2019 via: Abstract Submission

(Questions? Contact us at: )

We hope to address the following themes at the workshop:

● Next generation approaches to synthetic ecology and microbial communities

● Design philosophy and principles for synthetic ecology

● Embracing complexity of organism-environment interaction, leveraging emergence. Working with living system approaches rather than ”machine metaphors”

● New ways of interacting with microbial ecosystems

● Learning from traditional approaches to manipulating microbial communities (fermentation etc.) (manipulating to learn and learning to manipulate)

● Extending the dialogue: artificial life and synthetic ecology

● Synthetic and microbial ecology as tools to understand fundamental processes in ecology and evolution

● Looking ahead: ecological technologies for the benefit of earth and humankind (Synthetic ecology for the future -terraforming, constructing new spheres of human-microbial interaction, new approaches to AMR etc)

Key dates (2019)

● May 31 (Friday): Online abstraction submission deadline

● June 25 (Tuesday): Notification of accepted Abstracts

● July 5 (Friday): Camera ready abstract deadline

● July 30 (Tuesday): Workshop (Newcastle UK)

Format, Schedule, and Anticipated Deliverables

This workshop will take place on Tuesday, July 30 (a day prior to the Designer Biology conference, from which we hope we will have some 'cross-pollinating' participation). We would like this workshop to seed a "working group" and be as discussion-based as possible. Most speakers should plan on no more than 4 slides and speak for no more than 5 mins as a means to prompt larger workshop discussion of issues raised. Rather than simply reporting work done, talks should highlight key questions and challenges in existing work and in developing new approaches. We hope this "short talk-long discussion" format will facilitate a friendly, collaborative, and productive atmosphere to generate meaningful and novel outputs.

A more detailed workshop schedule will be posted in July once further developed from abstract submissions.

We anticipate the following deliverables for and following this workshop:

● New and strengthened relationships across the divide; networking

● Community-driven synthesis of new ideas and perspectives

● Manuscript for publication summarizing workshop ideas and perspectives, including a synthesis of “where do we go from here?”

Key Dates (2019)

● May 31 (Friday): Online abstraction submission deadline

● June 25 (Tuesday): Notification of accepted Abstracts

● July 5 (Friday): Camera ready abstract deadline

● July 30 (Tuesday): Workshop (Newcastle UK)


● Alexandra Penn (University of Surrey, UK)

● Erik F. Y. Hom (University of Mississippi, USA)


Contact the organizers by emailing us at: