Monica Espinosa Gomez is a PhD Candidate in the Paulsen SynBio Group at Macquarie University. Earlier this year she was awarded a CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform PhD Scholarship. While undertaking her Bachelors of Biotechnology (Hons), Molecular Biotechnology, at UQ she worked in numerous labs as a research assistant. In 2016, she worked under synthetic biologist, Dr Claudia Vickers, at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology before embarking on her PhD journey in 2017. Twitter handle: @monicaespgom
SBA: Describe your research in 3 sentences.
Monica: Currently, the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is used at an industrial scale to produce valuable compounds such as the renewable jet-fuel farnesene and the antimalarial drug artemisinin. However, the sugars yeast requires to grow and produce these compounds are quite expensive and require arable land that competes with food-production. My research aims to genetically engineer yeast to utilise methanol derived from greenhouse gases to produce fuel and chemicals in a more sustainable manner.
SBA: What do you find exciting about synthetic biology?
Monica: What I find exciting about synthetic biology is all its applications. I believe it can provide solutions to many of the world’s current challenges. For example, there are many ways synthetic biology can be harnessed for tackling environmental pollution. Microorganisms can be programmed to ‘eat’ toxic compounds to bio-remediate contaminated water or land. They can also be engineered to behave as reliable, sensitive biosensors for measuring specific pollutants.
Synthetic biology will also play a major role in the global effort to make a more sustainable future a reality. This requires moving from heavily relying on fossil fuels for energy and production of commodity chemicals.
Synthetic biology can offer engineered microorganisms for producing biodegradable plastics as well as other compounds that would normally come from the petrochemical industry. On top of offering an alternative production platform, synthetic biology can improve and build upon these alternatives, by playing numerous roles at different points in the production pipeline. For example, synthetic biology helped to generate the farnesene-producing yeast strain currently used to produce renewable jet fuel. However, we can do better to make this production process even more sustainable- and in fact, that is where my research comes in. By genetically engineering a yeast strain to rely on a more sustainable feedstock, methanol, instead of sugar, we can generate an improved “2.0” production pipeline.
SBA: If you were not working in synthetic biology, what area would you work in?
Monica: If I were not working in synthetic biology, I would be a marine biologist. I have always been fascinated by marine life and their ecosystems. I know I would enjoy the research in this field, not to mention exciting field trips!
SBA: What do you think is the biggest challenge synthetic biology will need to overcome?
Monica: I think the biggest challenge synthetic biology will need to overcome is the negative public opinion on genetically modified products or even the term ‘synthetic’ biology’. It will not be easy to convince people that genetically modified products can benefit society, or that measures to ensure their safety have been taken. I do believe, however, that scientists can help change this negative opinion by engaging with their community and sharing what they work on more regularly. By getting people more familiar with genetic modification, what it is, what the benefits and risks are, and how many genetically engineered organisms already exist etc., we could start to defuse this fear. For example, I know my friends and family understand what I am doing and are even excited about the possibilities and beneficial outcomes that could arise from my PhD. Lastly, I think it is important to remember that GMO products are designed to benefit the consumer and help society.
SBA: Would you eat animal-free meat made by synthetic biology?
Monica: Yes, I would eat animal-free meat made by synthetic biology.