ASU Center for Science and the Imagination announces Imaginary College

January 26, 2017

It seems like our most pressing global challenges are growing ever more complex and interconnected, from climate change and migrant crises to childhood poverty and economic inequality.

Meeting these increasingly urgent challenges requires more than just technical know-how — it requires imagination: the capacity to envision possible futures, to see what is invisible and empathize with people who are unlike us. Before we can explore, or create, or innovate, we have to imagine what might be possible. Headshots for members of the Imaginary College: Paolo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Kathryn Cramer, Donald Marinelli, and Bruce Sterling. Members of the Center for Science and the Imagination’s Imaginary College include (clockwise from top left) Paolo Bacigalupi, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Kathryn Cramer, Donald Marinelli and Bruce Sterling. Download Full Image

In short, we need imagination now more than ever. We need to understand what makes people and groups imaginative, how to foster and grow people’s capacity to imagine, and how to harness imagination, applying it to real-world problems. In this spirit, the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University is proud to announce the members of its Imaginary College: a group of outstanding creative thinkers, researchers and practitioners across a panoply of fields who are already out there advancing the center’s mission of fresh, creative and ambitious thinking about the future.

“The Imaginary College is filled with unique thinkers and practitioners whose work shows us the power of imagination to create positive change,” said Ed Finn, founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination. “These visionaries help us think through how science, technology, art and storytelling might shape our collective imagination about global challenges and the future.”

The members of the Imaginary College are split into two categories: philosophers who epitomize imaginative thinking and provide inspiration for the center’s work, and Fellows who work with the center to design and implement imaginative projects.

  • Margaret Atwood: poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist and environmental activist; author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the MaddAddam trilogy
  • Paolo Bacigalupi: science fiction and fantasy writer, author of “The Windup Girl,” “Ship Breaker” and “The Water Knife”
  • Kathryn Cramer, science fiction writer, editor and critic; co-founder of “The New York Review of Science Fiction” and co-editor of the Year’s Best SF series
  • Donald Marinelli: co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University; director of innovation at 535media/Inven Global
  • Neal Stephenson: science fiction and historical fiction author; chief futurist for the VR company Magic Leap; founder of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph
  • Bruce Sterling: science fiction author; editor of “Mirrorshades: A Cyberpunk Anthology”; author of “Schismatrix”and “Islands in the Net”
  • Michael G. Bennett: legal scholar; associate research professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Center for Science and the Imagination, and Risk Innovation Lab, ASU
  • Brenda Cooper: science fiction and fantasy author and editor; chief technology officer for the city of Kirkland, Washington
  • Megan Halpern: assistant professor, History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science program, Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University
  • Dehlia Hannah: curator and visiting assistant professor of art-science collaboration, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, ASU
  • Jonathon Keats: conceptual artist and experimental philosopher; author of “You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future”
  • Manjana Milkoreit: assistant professor of political science, Purdue University; co-founder of ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative
  • Corey Pressman: vice president of adaptive strategies at Think Fiction; creative technologist and anthropologist
  • Hannah Star Rogers: art-science collaboration expert and poet; writing program instructor at Columbia University
  • Erin Walker: assistant professor, School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, ASU; educational technologist
  • Phil Weaver-Stoesz: creative director, Catalyst Collective; MFA candidate in Theatre Director, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, ASU
  • G. Pascal Zachary: professor of practice, School for the Future of Innovation in Society; author of “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century”

To learn more about the Imaginary College and to read full bios of its members, visit

Joey Eschrich

program manager, Center for Science and the Imagination


Tiny, pond-dwelling organism reveals nearly bulletproof DNA

ASU researcher, colleagues demonstrate that Tetrahymena DNA is the most stable ever measured

January 26, 2017

Meet the tiny, hair-lined ciliate, Tetrahymena thermophila. This nondescript pond-loving, pear-shaped protist, only visible through the microscope, has long fascinated scientists — even fueling Nobel Prize discoveries — due to its highly unusual cellular biology and genetic structure. 

Now, it turns out that Tetrahymena’s genome, its genetic blueprint, is even more fascinating than previously thought. ASU Biodesign Institute geneticist Reed Cartwright and colleagues at the University of Houston and Indiana University have demonstrated that, when grown in the vegetative life cycle, Tetrahymena DNA is the most stable ever measured, nearly impervious to change.   ASU Biodesign Institute geneticist Reed Cartwright and colleagues at the University of Houston and Indiana University have demonstrated that, when grown in the vegetative life cycle, Tetrahymena DNA is the most stable ever measured, nearly impervious to change. Download Full Image

After growing 10 different isolated Tetrahymena lines for 1,000 generations in the lab, and sequencing the genomes at the start and the end of the experiment, they have measured the rate of change of its precious DNA blueprint across each generation. This measurement, called the mutation rate, was the lowest ever recorded for any organism.

“It is one-third lower than any prior mutation rate, and about 1,500 times lower than in humans,” said Cartwright, a professor in the School of Life Sciences and researcher at Biodesign’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics. “For every generation in humans, children inherit about 75 new mutations from their parents. This ciliate experiences 75 new mutations every 100,000 generations; it can go 1,000 generations without having a single mutation occur.”

The findings, published along with long-time collaborators Rebecca Zufall and Ricardo Azevedo from the University of Houston, were published recently in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

Cartwright has long been fascinated with studying mutations, the random changes in DNA that are the main drivers of evolution.

Every life form on the planet has the same genetic chemistry: using just four simple building blocks, known by the letters A, T, C and G, after their chemical names. The diversity of life is produced by varying the number and order of those letters.

Reed Cartwright, Ph.D.
Reed Cartwright measured the rate of change, called the mutation rate, which was the lowest ever recorded for any organism.

The great naturalist and science writer Lewis Thomas once marveled at this driving trial-and-error force of DNA: “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music,” he wrote in the book “The Medusa and the Snail.”

But studying the DNA blundering of the Tetrahymena ciliate, might not seem like an obvious choice.

“I was working on finding mutations in various species and did a postdoc at the University of Houston, where I met Becky, who was doing the experimental side of the work with her former graduate student, Hongan Long,” Cartwright said. “They needed a computational biologist to help identify mutations, and that’s when I began to work on Tetrahymena.”

Co-author Michael Lynch and his lab at Indiana University had studied a similar ciliate, the Paramecium, that is the staple of science classrooms, and also found a low mutation rate. Since the most important biological processes are usually the most conserved throughout evolution, they wondered if the DNA of Tetrahymena also showed the same high-fidelity genome.

They undertook an experiment to evolve the ciliate entirely in a test tube, called experimental evolution. Here, they took individuals and divided them into 10 different lines, growing them each over a few months for more than 1,000 generations.

Fortunately, the average division time of Tetrahymena can be measured in hours, so by keeping the conditions just right, they could force the growth solely in the vegetative life cycle, where they divide by simple binary fission.

“As long as they are healthy and happy, they grow vegetatively. They don’t try to undergo meiosis or have sex,” Cartwright said. After 1,000 generations, Cartwright and colleagues used some tricks of Tetrahymena biology to isolate its DNA, and the next-generation DNA facility at the Biodesign Institute to sequence the DNA.

“Ciliates are just plain cool. ... This was just our first round of results, and we can’t wait to get to the next round."
– ASU Biodesign Institute geneticist Reed Cartwright 

To their surprise, they only found a total of six mutations within the different Tetrahymena lines after more than 1,000 generations of growth and division. Cartwright, along with former Biodesign Institute scientist David Winter, had to specifically design a new software tool, called accMUlate, to find rare mutations in these types of experiments. The team spent a lot of effort looking for more mutations but did not find them, and is confident that Tetrahymena thermophila has the lowest mutation rate discovered so far.

The team has funding from the National Institutes of Health and is continuing to explore mutation processes in Tetrahymena. Importantly, the research team wants to investigate the big question of why Tetrahymena has such a low mutation rate. Cartwright has a few guesses, which they are very eager to explore.

“Ciliates are just plain cool,” Cartwright said. “It’s a cool, weird system. This was just our first round of results, and we can’t wait to get to the next round. We’ll have a lot of new data to improve our methods and understand more about ciliate genetics.”

Finding the answer could provide important clues to a new biological pathway that helps protect the fidelity of genomes, or identify molecules that are important for ensuring DNA copying is error-free, which could be adapted for biotechnology applications.

For amidst all of the “weird biology” of Tetrahymena, Cartwright doesn’t know where the next scientific answers will veer his research. But that is also part of the joy as he further explores mutations across the tree of life, that, over time, are the driving force of evolution.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications