'What is life?' -- Leopoldina's Annual Assembly begins in Halle

September 23, 2011

The three-day Annual Assembly of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina entitled "What is life?" is now starting at the Kongress und Kulturzentrum in Halle (Saale). Today's focus will be on "The Origin of Life" and "Elementary Life Processes - Synthetic Life". Outstanding scientists will be honoured during the morning session. Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel and Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt Dr. Reiner Haseloff will speak in the afternoon.

Participants of the Leopoldina's Annual Assembly will discuss the question of life in a total of 20 lectures and bridge the gap between natural sciences, the humanities and life sciences. This interdisciplinary approach is important for Professor Jörg Hacker, President of the German National Academy Leopoldina. Scientific criteria, such as having an independent metabolism or the ability to procreate, could describe organic life, but not conclusively explain it: "Questions of responsibility and self-reflection also play a role here."

This is exemplified in a lecture by Israeli Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Professor Ada E. Yonath (2009) who will speak this Friday at 4 pm about ribosomes as factories of life, and two lectures directed at the general public. At 8 pm Professor Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel Laureate in Medicine (1995) will speak "On the Evolution of Beauty" ("Zur Evolution der Schönheit") and will explain how a zebra fish develops from stem cells. In the Annual Assembly's final lecture, Professor of Theology Richard Schröder will give answers to the ethically and politically controversial question of "At what point are humans humans?" (Ab wann ist der Mensch ein Mensch?) on Sunday, 25 September, at 11:45 am.

"Combining various scientific approaches and discussing and evaluating these are important tasks of the Leopoldina as a national academy", explains Leopoldina President Hacker. "Many research findings from life sciences, like for example predictive genetic diagnostics or personalized medicine, make this work of the science academies essential for social and political discussion in Germany." The Leopoldina develops interdisciplinary statements on current topics using the expertise of outstanding scientists and has a special role to play as a national academy. "I believe those who say that "A" stands for "Academy" with a national entitlement also must say that it stands for "Advising" society and politics". This includes considering ethical questions as well.

In 2011 the Leopoldina has issued statements on methods of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) as well as on energy policy and energy research after the events in Fukushima, Japan. Many other current topics are being worked on in the Academy's working groups. "It is important, especially in times when uncertainties are on the rise and complex questions, from fighting acute infections to problems with money markets and education policy, demand sophisticated answers", says President Hacker.
A complete programme of the Annual Assembly and further information can be found at the website www.leopoldina.org


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