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Microbial Factories

Interview: Nadine Bongaerts, Synthetic Biologist Bridging Science with Society

Nadine Bongaerts is a Dutch synthetic biologist and entrepreneur who is building bridges between science, business and society. Fascinated by engineering life at the smallest scale, she designs bacteria with new functions. In 2010, she joined a team of TU Delft students to participated in the worldwide synthetic biology competition iGEM (Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine) for which they developed DNA bricks that turned bacteria into minuscule oil-degrading cells. The work was recognized nationally and internationally and awarded with different prizes. Her current research focuses on using genetic engineering of bacteria to produce a pearl-like material with advanced mechanical properties.

Bongaerts is always looking for creative ways to share her knowledge and connect science to societal developments. This resulted in the co-founding of Biotecture (2011), a company for communication and education of Life Sciences. Since 2014, she is Global Community Director of Hello Tomorrow in which she leads a global network of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and investors to stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations that accelerate scientific findings to the market.

We recently talk to Nadine Bongaerts about the role and impact of synthetic biology, the gap between bio­sciences and society and the importance of communication to overcome the fear of new technologies.

The next stage of biology is in a human technology. From the engineering of bacteria to the transformation of entire landscapes, we are the dominant force shaping our planet. What do you think about the concept of nature in this setup? Is it a relevant topic of discussion?

“What I cannot create, I do not understand” this is the principle of synthetic biology

I think we are part of a process. In a way, our technological inventions start to resemble more and more nature’s complexity. This is where technology and nature start to converge with each other. I think the relationship between the two is very intricate and as time passes, they will be more and more involved with each other. I can image a future where it will be very difficult to see the difference between nature and or human created technology.

Would you define synthetic biology as a technology? And what is the role of this discipline?

Synthetic biology (synbio) is using many different disciplines; it’s not a single technology. The ambition of synthetic biology is to re­engineer existing biological systems or to engineer organisms from scratch. I always remember this famous quote by Richard Feynman: “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. This is the underlying principle of synthetic biology. In synbio, we often make use of computer models to make predictions about biology, then we go to the lab to verify these predictions. Through this iterative process between computer science and biology, we are able to speed up our biological research. As computer capacity increases, we are also able to test more variables that allow us to understand the complex nature of biology. These fascinating developments help us to better understand what biology is like. But still, I have to admit that even the simplest life forms, like the bacteria I work with, are very complex. Even the most common organisms that we use in the lab are not completely understood yet.

Our technological inventions resemble more and more nature’s complexity

What is the relationship between synbio and nature?

With synthetic biology, we have a technology that is actually breaking this dichotomy, because we are using nature in this technology. We are working with nature and we are engineering it in a technological sense. So, if we create an organism that has different genes and doesn’t exist in nature, you could question yourself about whether or not this is a natural being. I think it is hard to give a good answer to this question. It’s probably a matter of how you define technology and how you define nature, but synthetic biology definitely changes the image of technology and nature being two separate things.

You were a part of an iGEM project from the TU Delft, where you developed synthetically produced bio­bricks (standardized DNA codes) to transform bacteria into oil digesting cells. When do you think this technology will be available commercially?

Our team did the first steps toward a biological application for oil-polluted water. We took the genes from natural bacteria that already had genes encoding for to enzymes that degrade certain molecules in crude oil and we gave the same genes to E. coli bacteria. The advantage of working with E. coli compared to most other organisms is that this lab-pet is well studied and that there are many genetic tools available to control its cell functions. Especially precise cell control is difficult to obtain. It can take many years before this particular project becomes robust enough to be used as a system for water treatment purposes and it hopefully will inspire other researchers to continue with our work.

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Engineering Synthetic Bacteria

Synthetic biology and bio­engineering come with a lot of stigma. These technologies are often perceived as something bad because of their manipulation of the natural. What do you think is the root cause of this perception and what can be done to overcome it?

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