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Quick Chat: MIT Postdoc Dr. César de la Fuente Nunez

BENJAMIN SCOTT - MAY 13, 2018

As part of SynBio Canada’s continuing efforts to grow the synthetic biology community, we’ve begun reaching out to researchers both in Canada and abroad. The reception has been incredibly welcoming, which has left us with an abundance of researchers to connect with. This article is the first in a series of Quick Chats, meant to highlight the diverse range of research interests and ideas within the community.

 Dr. César de la Fuente Nunez, a Postdoctoral Associate and Ramon Areces Foundation Fellow at MIT, working with Prof. Timothy K. Lu.

Dr. César de la Fuente Nunez, a Postdoctoral Associate and Ramon Areces Foundation Fellow at MIT, working with Prof. Timothy K. Lu.

Dr. César de la Fuente Nunez is a Spanish-Canadian synthetic biologist, where he received undergraduate training at the University of León, then moved to Canada to complete a PhD at the University of British Columbia. César is currently a Postdoctoral Associate and Ramon Areces Foundation Fellow working with Prof. Timothy K. Lu at MIT. He has a passion for both science and soccer, and with another MIT colleague he’s the coach and plays on the MIT FC.

César is interested in fostering a robust synthetic biology community, in Canada and abroad, so we sat down with him to discuss his ideas about the field.

Where does your interest in synthetic biology stem from? What are your working on right now?

I believe synthetic biology can be used to build truly innovative new technologies to solve real world problems. In my research, working at the intersection between synthetic biology and computational biology, I engineer biological systems (such as tiny proteins) to make novel potential medicines. One of the global health challenges I have targeted through my research is that of antibiotic resistance. With my collaborators around the world, I have provided an array of solutions to combat drug-resistant infections.

Your research background is incredibly diverse, from materials science, to genome editing, to microbiology. Where does synthetic biology fit into all of this?

 Synthetic biology converges all these fields. I would argue this is the power of this emerging field, that it bridges different disciplines to create new technological tools and advances. Getting people from all these fields to interact, brainstorm and share ideas has been transformative and has enabled synbio to evolve into what it is today.

In what industries or applications do you foresee synthetic biology having the greatest impact in the next 10 years? What are you excited about?

 Dr. de la Fuente Nunez recently published his work to create a yeast-based system for the rapid production of anti-microbial peptides.  Link to paper.    Image: Ella Marushchenko, provided by   Dr. de la Fuente Nunez.

Dr. de la Fuente Nunez recently published his work to create a yeast-based system for the rapid production of anti-microbial peptides. Link to paper.

Image: Ella Marushchenko, provided by Dr. de la Fuente Nunez.

The medical field. But I also foresee practical applications in bioremediation, energy and catalysis. At the moment, I am personally most excited and most personally invested in trying to translate synthetic biology-based applications into the clinic.

What programs or initiatives have worked well to support synthetic biology research?

I think the support from universities and governments is key here. In addition, I believe the field has benefited from conferences dedicated entirely to synbio, and to journals such as ACS Synthetic Biology from the American Chemical Society, which focus exclusively on this field.

MIT has a strong synthetic biology background, with a diversity of expertise. Is there something unique about MIT that has fostered this?

MIT was one of the first strong supporters of this new field, and this is clearly reflected in the institution. We have the MIT Synthetic Biology Center (where I work) that houses some of the most brilliant minds in the field, including some of its founding fathers. The interdisciplinary nature and lack of boundaries of MIT as a whole has definitely boosted the development of a strong synbio community.

Are there specific resources you would find useful for strengthening synthetic biology in Canada? What would make Canada more attractive for synthetic biology?

I believe combining efforts among groups interested in synbio, for example through regular meetings/conferences, etc. will certainly strengthen the synbio community in Canada. Having a genome foundry would be a great resource and strengthening ties with industry would also de highly desirable. Federal funding would also need to back up this emerging field. In the US, not only NIH, but also DARPA and DTRA among others have been instrumental in funding and supporting synbio efforts and initiatives.

How can the interdisciplinary nature of synthetic biology be better leveraged, and avoid isolating researchers into many individual departments? Have you faced any challenges communicating synthetic biology either to the public or to other academics?

Science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, and I think the field of synbio has benefited from this. Most tools and scientific advances developed within the field of synthetic biology have a “real world” application. Therefore, I would argue that it is actually easier to communicate such advances to the public. Because the public can easily relate to the societal problems synbio is trying to tackle.

Synthetic biology is often characterized as a tool for conducting research, while others define it as a distinct field with a primary focus on applications outside of the lab. What’s your own definition of synthetic biology?

I see synthetic biology as a discipline of disciplines. A converging field that borrows concepts from classically distant or unrelated fields such as engineering, computer science and biology.