Molecular biologist Michele Fabris has been awarded one of the first CSIRO fellowships aimed at boosting Australian research capacity in synthetic biology.
Dr Fabris, a research associate in the UTS Climate Change Cluster (C3), will use the fellowship to work with a species of photosynthetic microalgae, or phytoplankton, to test whether it can be modified to carry out specific functions, such as the production of pharmaceutical products.
The use of modified cells as “biofactories” to produce useful products such as pharmaceuticals and fuels is one application being explored in synthetic biology. Scientists have traditionally used bacteria and yeast cells for these purposes but in using algal cells Dr Fabris will be better able to exploit useful traits such as photosynthesis and peculiar metabolism.
“I’m aiming to convert a phytoplankton cell into a photosynthetic ‘chassis’ capable of carrying out specialised functions it couldn’t normally carry out,” Dr Fabris says.
He says one of his aims is to generate an engineered algal cell that can synthesise high-value pharmaceutical metabolites, which are normally produced in low quantities by plants.
“The advantage of exploiting a scalable, fast-growing photosynthetic microorganism would enable the production of such compounds such as anti-cancer drugs at a scale where the production is economically feasible.”
This work forms part of CSIRO’s $13 million investment in the creation of a Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (SynBio FSP). Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary science, drawing on biology, engineering, computer science and other fields, that has potential applications in areas as diverse as manufacturing, human health, agriculture and ecosystem protection. Future applications of synthetic biology research, built on a philosophy of responsible development, are expected to be far-reaching and will keep Australia competitive across a range of new and emerging industries.
“Synthetic biology has significant potential for generating benefits for society. These fellowships will help grow the capability of a new generation of researchers and attract the best students and experts to work with us on future science in Australia,” says Associate Professor Claudia Vickers, leader of CSIRO’s SynBio FSP.
Dr Fabris, a member of the C3 Algal Biosystems Research Program, will work with a model microalgae species, the diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum, to explore its potential to produce high-value plant molecules.
“By isolating the ‘genetic instructions’ from the plant, re-arranging them to make them compatible, then installing them in the microalgal chassis, I aim to make the diatom execute the instructions and synthetise these complex molecules,” he says.
C3 Director Professor Peter Ralph said that Dr Fabris’s skills and experience with algal molecular biology, DNA assembly and genetics made him the perfect candidate for this extremely exciting new venture with CSIRO.
“Michele joined UTS in 2014 and he has become a key member of our algal bioproducts research program. This fellowship speaks very highly of the future thinking direction C3 and UTS Faculty of Science is taking,” Professor Ralph says.
“This is one key part of our vision to create a new algae-based bioeconomy for Australia, providing new employment opportunities and delivering high-value exports.
“Over the past three years, C3 has been strategically building capacity in the critical areas of algae ‘omics’, system biology and molecular engineering to support the upcoming wave of exciting green biotechnology solutions to sustain our economy and society into the future.”
Dr Fabris will be based at C3 as part of the co-funded fellowship with access to state-of-the -art facilities and knowledge base in algal biology, phenomics and cultivation. As a visiting fellow at CSIRO he will be mentored and connected to a developing Australian synthetic biology community.