Synbio profile interview – Karen Weynberg

Karen WeynbergWe are excited to present synthetic biologist, Dr Karen Weynberg, who is the ECR representative of SBA Executive Board. Karen is a CSIRO Future Science Research Fellow based at University of Queensland.

She completed her PhD in the UK in 2009, uncovering new viruses that infect marine phytoplankton. Her first fellowship, the ARC Super Science Research Fellowship, investigated the role of viruses in coral reefs. Her current fellowship uses synthetic biology to develop phage therapy for addressing bacterial biofilms and antibiotic resistance. Suffice to say that  Karen is something of a virus aficionado, and has even given a TedX talk and media interviews to  BBC News and ABC News. Twitter handle: @ReefViruses

SBA: We know you are working on a SynBio virus project at the moment, could you describe that work in 3 sentences?

Karen: My research focuses on using synthetic biology to engineer naturally-occurring bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria, also called phage for short) to control bacterial biofilms, particularly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is a world health emergency, costing the Australian economy one billion dollars a year and we urgently need to find suitable antimicrobial alternatives. My research promises to deliver novel, game-changing and innovative solutions to help the problem of escalating antibiotic-resistant biofilms in a range of environments.

SBA: What do you find really exciting about synthetic biology?

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Transmission electron microscopy image of viral particles, Micromonas pusilla. Image from Weynberg et al., 2017 (CC-BY 4.0)

Karen: Synthetic biology holds a lot of promise in a range of different directions. I think the many avenues this research could potentially take is the real crux of its allure. We must be aware there are many challenges involved as this nascent area of science emerges. However, there is so much potential to really revolutionise how we tackle a myriad of problems as diverse as malaria and mosquito control to antibiotic resistance to feeding future populations.

SBA: What was the last really good synthetic biology paper you read/talk you attended?

Karen: Recently, an article on the synthesis of the horsepox virus genome was published. This virus is related to the virus that causes smallpox. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this work and ultimately why it was conducted. The authors and their work triggered a lot of debate in the scientific community and beyond. Although this publication did attract a level of criticism, I believe it is a positive feature of synthetic biology that the research community involved does not shy away from such conversations but instead is fully aware that these discussions must be had. I think this is an admirable trait about the field of synthetic biology. My experience thus far is that there is a heightened awareness in the synthetic biology community that we must engage with and explore the ethical outcomes and social consequences our science may influence.

Karen_labSBA: What do you think is the biggest challenge synthetic biology will need to overcome?

Karen: I think the biggest challenge will be the general public’s perception of this field of research. Historically and ongoing, certain scientific innovations, including genetically modified organisms and vaccinations, have experienced resistance from some sections of society. The field of synthetic biology will need to overcome similar hurdles. As scientists conducting this research, it is incumbent upon us to engage with the public at every opportunity and provide education and outreach to fully inform people just what our science entails and the potential it offers for positive future outcomes.

SBA: Would you eat animal-free meat made by synthetic biology?

Karen: As a vegan, my answer has to be a resounding YES to this question! In developed countries in particular, there is no need for us to eat other animals and yet a demand for meat consumption appears to be increasing. I would fully welcome synthetic alternatives in our diets.

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