Dr Michele Fabris is a CSIRO Synthetic Biology FPS Fellow, working on a diverse group of microalgae called diatoms. He is a core member of the Algal Biosystems and Biotechnology group led by Prof. Peter Ralph in Climate Change Cluster, of the University of Technology Sydney (C3:UTS), and a CSIRO Visiting Scientist in the group of A/Prof. Claudia Vickers. Michele completed his Ph.D. in 2013, where he worked on the reconstruction of diatom metabolic networks, and characterised novel aspects of diatom metabolism. Twitter handle: @fabrismichele
SBA: Describe your research in 3 sentences.
Michele: My research is focused on applying synbio principles to unicellular photosynthetic algae; the tiny but complex microbes that cover Earth’s oceans, are responsible for every second breath we take, and adsorb the harmful greenhouse gas, CO2. My work aims both at understanding the secrets of their biology, and rewiring it to add novel, useful functions to a their repertoire. Since most microalgae have inexpensive and basic requirements – they only need seawater, carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow – using them to replace expensive and complex high-value product manufacturing pipelines could drastically reduce their production costs and carbon footprints.
SBA: What do you find really exciting about synthetic biology?
Michele: Synthetic biology is about decoding and re-interpreting nature’s programming language by taking it apart, simplifying it, and modifying it, both to understand it and to solve problems. I find this absolutely fascinating. Also, the potential of synthetic biology to benefit our society is huge. It is very exciting to watch this field evolve so rapidly, while remembering that this is just the beginning. We are witnessing a new cultural, technological and industrial revolution and that’s pretty exciting.
SBA: Do you have any concerns about synthetic biology?
Michele: Like any other type of disruptive and powerful technology, it comes with responsibilities. Synthetic biology has the potential to solve many of the problems that today’s society is struggling with, including delicate applications in human health and protection of the environment. New forms of regulation will be required for progress to take action. It is crucial that institutes create processes of informed decision-making and that scientists are actively involved in them.
Also, the public’s perception of synthetic biology is equally important. In recent years we have, unfortunately, witnessed repeated anti and pseudo-scientific crusades. Misinformation about the potential of synthetic biology can harm the progress of this field of science. It is fundamental to correctly inform the general public on what synthetic biology is, what it can do for our society and for our planet. In this regard, scientific communication has a major role to play, now probably more than never before.
We know that communicating with the public is more complex than simply throwing facts at them, even if we make these facts accessible and interesting. One of the ways that we can communicate science is using creative arts. My research group has recently created a fantastic installation of the organism I work on -microalgae- for Vivid Sydney, a festival where art, technology and commerce intersect. This installation is an example of some of the more creative ways of bringing the science we do to the public. In this way, we can foster new conversations about the applications of biotech and synbio in a way that avoids the usual stigmatised and stunted discourse around these contentious subjects.
SBA: What was the last really good synthetic biology paper you read/talk you attended?
Michele: The keynote talk that Prof. John Glass (JCVI) gave at the last Synthetic Biology Australasia Conference in Sydney on their ongoing efforts of generating a ‘synthetic organism’ with minimal genome was extremely inspiring. Even though John and colleagues managed to reduce the number of genes of a very simple bacterium to the minimum amount required for life, they still could not understand the function of a significant portion of these genes. This work clearly shows what amazing goals synbio can achieve, but also demonstrates how much more complex nature is at its simpler forms, never mind the exponentially more advanced human form.