Young PIs in action: Interview with Pierre Crozet

For the next blog in our Young PI series, we interview Pierre Crozet from Sorbonne Université in Paris, Frence.


Kostas Vavitsas: What is the biotechnological and synthetic biology potential of microalgae, and why did you choose to work in this area?

Pierre Crozet: As you work in the field, you have a few answers of your own, but I will try to answer with a twist. I want to work on photosynthetic organisms, for all the advantages you can imagine. There is a strong focus on the community on plants for agriculture, but in photosynthetic algae you can do more. Chlamydomonas has a bigger potential to answer biological questions and do synthetic biology. So plants can provide food, and algae could do anything else.

And here is the twist. I come from an Arabidopsis research background; Arabidopsis is easy to work with but slow to grow. Transitioning to algae was great! The algae synbio community is still small and the European GMO legislation is not very helpful, but we’re getting there. See for example the strong algae research by ExxonMobil; I think that practical applications are coming soon!


KV: How was the transition from postdoc to Associate Professor? Was it as you had imagined it?

PC: No, it was totally different. I have to note that technically I am not a PI, in the French system an Associate Professor is normally not a group leader. However, I have a significantly higher level of independence as I am the leader of my projects and already co-supervising a PhD student.

Well, for the first year in my new position I didn’t even touch a pipette. I had to do admin, write grants, teaching, teaching, and teaching. There is a lot of hidden administration work that PhD students and postdocs never see. So the nature of my job has changed.

But not all changes are bad. The interaction with the society is different, you are no longer a postdoc and people start contacting you – like you guys did – to draw on your expertise. For example, I am at the scientific advisory board of a startup biotech company named Neoplants, a position I think I wouldn’t have without being an Associate Professor.


KV:You emphatically mentioned teaching as a major part of your work routine. Do you find it a hindrance to your research role?

PC: Look, I love teaching. I never pictured myself in any other role other than professor. I wouldn’t exchange this position with anything else – maybe a full Professor position!

I really value the time I spend with the students. But teaching has more to it: administration work, marking essays and exams, preparing lecturing content… I could do with less of that.

Teaching has some benefits to the teacher. It forces you to see outside the box, and gives an incentive to improve your knowledge, especially when you are teaching something you feel unqualified for. For example, I had to train engineers in food and feed industry. As the subject was not within my immediate field of expertise, I had to become competent.

Last but not least, teaching makes you feel that you are making a difference to your students’ lives. You interact with them, you help them make a career, and some of them might choose to join in your lab for projects or research positions.


KV: And speaking of mentorship, what is the one most important piece of advice you would give to an Early Career Researcher in synthetic biology?

PC: Do what you like! This is the only important thing, do it for real and never give up!

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Pierre is interested in the molecular mechanisms allowing Plants to adapt to stresses. One of the major integrators of these environmental cues is the SnRK1 complex that allows maintenance of energy homeostasis. He studied its complex post-translational regulations that allow specific signal transduction during both his PhD at Université Paris-Sud, France, with Martine Thomas and Jean Vidal, and his postdoc at Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, Portugal, with Elena Baena-Gonzalez.

Since 2016, he shifted towards Synthetic Biology of carbon fixation in Chlamydomonas aiming at making this alga a better chassis to study the Calvin-Benson Cycle regulation through synthesis. He joined the team of Stéphane Lemaire and was appointed Assistant Professor in 2017 at Sorbonne Université to continue his work on developing Synthetic Biology in microalgae.


The answers were edited for length and clarity.

Young PIs in action: Interview with Ángel Goñi Moreno


Despite the numerous career option a PhD graduate has, many of us aspire to stay in Academia and become independent researchers. It is a difficult path that comes with many challenges. We therefore decide to ask fresh Principal Investigators about their experience and their words of wisdom in this aspect. Our first interviewee is a former Steering Committee member, Ángel Goñi Moreno, who leads his research group at Newcastle University.


Kostas Vavitsas: How did you find the transition from a postdoc do a PI?

Ángel Goñi Moreno: It was not trivial transition. Being a PI is a totally different type of job, and I wasn’t trained for it (I guess nobody is). So all of a sudden I had new responsibilities, new activities to take care of. For instance, I had to write project proposals, recruit people or manage a team - tasks that I did for the first time. Although challenging, it was a very exciting time. Starting your own laboratory allows you to choose which scientific questions you will prioritise. Who wouldn’t like that? Establishing collaborations is also a part of the job that I’m enjoying a lot. Anyway, I was very independent during my postdocs, so this did feel like the natural next step.

Kostas: What was the biggest professional challenge you had to overcome? What is the importance of mentoring in your career?


Ángel: The most important professional challenge is to get the first grant in. I firstly applied to a ERC Starting Grant, which I didn’t get. I then applied to the EPSRC First Grant, and I was successful at that. At this point, I felt a lot more comfortable with what I was doing. I’ve never had a “mentor” as such, so I can’t tell. However, I’ve had very good advisors during my postdocs, so I tried to copy as much as I could. Also I asked for help whenever I needed it, which was indeed very useful. By asking for help you also find out who is actually willing to help and try to build on them during those first steps.


Kostas: Do you find synthetic biologists to be computer literate? How can we better integrate information technology in common synbio practice?

Ángel: Nobody can be an expert in all the (sub)fields within synbio. There are few computer scientists, if that is what you ask. And it is a pity, because the understanding of biology from an information science standpoint can in fact be fundamental to the field. We should definitely encourage computer scientist to join in. This is not only to provide the tools and methods needed to get the most of measurements and predictions (via models), but also to provide a novel conceptual framework for the engineering (programming?) of living systems. Coming back to your question, the best way is to just do it. For instance, if your laboratory is 100% experimental, bring some theoreticians on board.

Kostas: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher in synthetic biology?

Ángel: Do not (always) follow the mainstream synbio research. Try to focus on the research questions you are confortable with and then bring them into the field. Not specific to synbio, but a general advice to early career researchers: be honest and open. Never pretend you know something you don’t. Never pretend your work is better than that of your colleagues. Always try to communicate your thoughts and plans to your peers. Share. Ask for help whenever you need it. It is important to remember that the people in your team work *with* you, not *for* you. By the same token, you don’t work *for* anyone (watch out!). Last, but not least, keep an eye on your life-work balance in order not to overcommit yourself. 

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Ángel Goñi Moreno is a Lecturer in Synthetic Biology at Newcastle University (UK); PI at the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Biosystems (ICOS) research group and Editor of the Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL). He was born in Madrid (Spain) on the 6th of August, 1983. In 2001 he started studying Computer Engineering at the Technical University of Madrid (UPM), Spain. After getting the degree he joined the Natural Computing Group at UPM and started researching in the fields of DNA Computing and Synthetic Biology. In 2010 he learned the first Ph.D. to be undertaken in Synthetic Biology at UPM. I also held a M. Sc. degree in Artificial Intelligence. After UPM he joined Martyn Amos’ group at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK) as a postdoc. When finished that position, in early 2013, he came back to Madrid to join the Victor de Lorenzo's lab which is part of the Systems Biology Program at CNB-CSIC (Centro Nacional de Biotecnología - National Center for Biotechnology). During the summer of 2016 he moved to Newcastle where he is at the moment.

The CRISPR gene-edited babies: a technological breakthrough or a brave new future?

He Jiankui announcing the birth of the gene-edited twins on Youtube

He Jiankui announcing the birth of the gene-edited twins on Youtube

The announcement of the first CRISPR gene-edited babies has sparked a major polemic in the scientific community, but also in the media and the public. The research was discreetly carried by a Chinese team lead by He Jiankui at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUST), in Shenzhen. He announced in a Youtube video: “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago”. The research team have used CRISPR to deactivate the CCR5 gene in the embryos, which were then implanted into the mother. The CCR5 gene encodes for a protein that enables the HIV virus to enter in human cells. The aim was to deactivate it to reduce the risk of HIV infection, as the father was HIV-positive. This procedure has been apparently applied to eight couples. However, its success is still unclear, as no data or details were publicly released yet.

 

Deletion/insertion in genome by CRISPR Source: Wikimedia

Deletion/insertion in genome by CRISPR Source: Wikimedia

In response to this announcement, many researchers in China and abroad condemned this experiment. Feng Zeng, the pioneer researcher in the application of CRISPR in mammalian cells, called for a global moratorium. Feng insisted that he was “deeply concerned” of the fact that the project was secretly undertaken. More than a 100 Chinese scientists have also signed a letter condemning the experiment. This announcement also coincides with the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Honk Kong, where many researchers reiterated the condemnations against the experiment. It was highlighted by Qiu Renzong (Chinese Academy of Social Science) that this violates the regulation in China, which is however not penalized. In opposition, George Church (Harvard University) defended it saying that HIV was “a major and growing public health threat” and “I think this is justifiable”.

The whole story is not fully known yet, and we still need to wait a few days to have more information to find out how the experiment was conducted. However, this story puts at risk the near future of gene editing, due to the way it was carried, with the secrecy around the project and the non-respect of ethical procedures.

Off-target effects of CRISPR Source: Wikimedia

Off-target effects of CRISPR Source: Wikimedia

At first, the issues with off targets in CRISPR gene-editing means that there are still high risks of inducing unwanted modifications in the genome. So, the babies risk irreversible damage in their genomes, potentially transmitting these to their offspring. Secondly, the way the team carried this experiment creates multiple ethical and practical issues. If the public see that scientists can decide to “engineer babies” in secret without any safety check, we risk to end up banning or restricting CRISPR even more. From an ethical point of view, using CRISPR was not a last resort solution here; other safer options exist to avoid HIV transmission from parents to their children. In practice, the cost of an IVF is not accessible to the vulnerable populations where HIV spreads. The CCR5 gene was probably an “easy” target, giving the opportunity to be the first one in the race to apply CRISPR in humans. But, the attention that this story attracts can negatively impact the public (and policy-makers’) perception of scientists and CRISPR. If the technology lacks a wide public understanding and support, it could delay the release of validated lifesaving treatments for many years.

Even if one day humanity decides to modify itself to prevent diseases, it is still too early and it is not the choice of a single person or a small group of academics. In the end, as scientists, we should do our best to bring life changing solutions, like human gene-editing, in a responsible way to make sure of the best positive impact possible.

“All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


Posted by courtesy of the PLOS Synbio Community blog, where this was originally published.

Written by: Adam Amara

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in EUSynBioS Pulse articles belong solely to the writer(s). They do not reflect the opinion of the Community, the Advisory Board or the Steering Committee.

SynBioS - towards stronger international connections in synthetic biology

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Accompanying adolescence of the discipline of synthetic biology, the past five years have seen many local, national, and supranational synthetic biology groups founded around the globe. United in the aims of promoting synthetic biology research as well as professional and policy development, the associations can benefit substantially from forging and maintaining strong horizontal connections.

On October 23rd, representatives from six national and supranational synthetic biology associations - EUSynBioS (Europe), SynBio UK (United Kingdom), GASB (Germany), SynBio  Australasia (Oceania), SynBio Canada (Canada), and EBRC SPA (United States of America) came together at the 2018 EUSynBioS Symposium Toulouse to set the foundation for a new international collaborative effort, the SynBioS Consortium. The representatives introduced their history, activities, and future plans through short presentations and discussed various topics of mutual interest, such as funding, social media, and science policy.

Concluding the workshop, the representatives confirmed their interest in continuing discussions as part of the future SynBioS Consortium, which will include regular online meetings focused on exchanging advice, coordinating initiatives, and reviewing progress.

We are looking forward to advancing synthetic biology together and encourage other national synthetic biology associations to join our endeavour.

  • EUSynBioS, SynBio UK, GASB, SynBio Australasia, SynBio Canada, EBRC SP

From Asilomar to Toulouse – Bringing Researchers Together and Synthetic Biology to the Forefront

In frosty February 1975, molecular biologists gathered at Asilomar (California, USA) for a conference going down in history. Following the recombinant DNA revolution, the ethical usage of recombinant DNA in research was discussed. Many aspects of this gathering foreshadowed issues that the child of recombinant DNA technology, synthetic biology, is struggling with nowadays. Asilomar helped shape recombinant DNA technologies and bring them into the public eye by bringing together the researchers involved in this topic.

In sunny October 2018, about 100 synthetic biologists from all over the world gathered in Toulouse, from Master’s students all the way up to distinguished professors and leaders in the field of synthetic biology. In a meeting jointly organized by the European Association of Synthetic Biology Students and Post-docs (EUSynBioS) and the French Research Group on Synthetic and Systems Biology (BioSynSys) at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse (INSA Toulouse), scientists had the chance to engage in fascinating presentations and discussions with their peers. This joint meeting was a first for both organisations and has shown the potential of collaboration between local and international scientific organisations to foster connection, exchange of ideas, and collaborations.

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During four days, leaders of synthetic biology such as Prof. Dr. Sven Panke from ETH Zurich, Prof. Dr. Beatrix Suess from TU Darmstadt or Prof. Dr. Jérôme Bonnet from the University of Montpellier explained their latest advances in very diverse areas of synthetic biology to the audience. Additionally, many young researchers had the chance to present their research in oral presentations and posters. Led by the idea of a circular bioeconomy powered by synthetic biology, which was illustrated by a keynote presentation by Dr. Lorie Hamelin and an open discussion with leaders in the field. This meeting in Toulouse gave to young as well as to established researchers a potential way forward in our climate change-endangered world.

Another way forward was illustrated in workshops conducted during the conference. Dr. Konstantinos Vavitsas discussed the important longstanding issue of standards in synthetic biology with the participants, Nadine Bongaerts prepared them for conversations with the public through science communication and Dr. Pablo Ivan Nikel led a career development workshop to ensure the success of the young researchers present. Accompanied by delicious French food & wines, our participants thus had plenty of exciting science around them, which would have turned the Asilomar participants green with envy!

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Yet there is an additional parallel with conferences such as Asilomar: organization, representation and the determination to bring the topic into the public eye. Next to EUSynBioS, national associations for synthetic biology such as the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB), Synthetic Biology Canada (SynBio Canada), Synthetic Biology Australasia (SBA), Synthetic Biology UK (SynBio UK) and the US-based Engineering Biology Research Consortium Student and Postdoc Association (EBRC SPA) also presented their organizations and plans for the future. With the aim of constructing a worldwide SynBioS Consortium to help coordinate initiatives and strengthen the ties between countries and continents, the national associations exchanged information and engaged in fruitful discussion. Analogous to Asilomar, meetings such as this symposium in Toulouse helps to shape the development of synthetic biology, both within as well as without by modulating its interaction with the general public surrounding it. This is particularly important nowadays, in a world endangered by climate-change and in which scientists and synthetic biologists need to bring forward new solutions to solve humanities’ most pressing challenges.

After four days of intense engagement on every level, the participants travelled back to their respective countries, enriched in knowledge, connections, and experiences. If our participants have even a fraction of the satisfaction we have with the event then we can consider it as a major success. See you at the next synthetic biology symposium!

Posted by courtesy of the PLOS Synbio Community blog, where this was originally published.

Daniel Bojar    and    Adam Amara    are EUSynBioS steering committee members.    Alicia Calvo-Villamañán    is a member of the student committee at BioSynSys.

Daniel Bojar and Adam Amara are EUSynBioS steering committee members. Alicia Calvo-Villamañán is a member of the student committee at BioSynSys.