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Interview with Colin Scott, one of Australia’s leading synbio experts



Image by Colin Scott

Colin Scott is a Principal Research Scientist working at CSIRO, Canberra. He runs the CSIRO Biocatalysis and Synthetic Biology Team and he’s a Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform Domain Leader (Chemicals & Fibres). The interview first appeared at Synthetic Biology Australasia website (see the original text here).



Describe your research in 3 sentences.

Colin: As a field SynBio is moving at a ridiculously fast pace, but still works with the somewhat limited toolbox of component parts that have evolved in nature. We can do a lot with the current toolbox, but if we want to re-engineer biology to do new things for us, we’ll need to add novel, bespoke components. That’s really where my research interests are, engineering novel biological component (proteins) with non-natural functionality that can then be deployed into SynBio applications.


What do you find really exciting about synthetic biology?

Colin: There aren’t many people that identify as synthetic biologists that are over fifty! It’s a young field with huge potential to deliver impactful technological solutions to some of the biggest environmental, economic and social issues that we’re currently facing.

Nanotube sensor
Nanotube sensor. Image by Oregon State University (CC-BY 2.0)

…we all want to be developing technology that is adopted and benefits society.

Do you have any concerns about synthetic biology? 

Colin: As a tech-head, it’s quite easy to get excited about SynBio. You can imagine designing and engineering any number of new technologies, some of them hugely disruptive. We do need to be mindful that, as with all disruptive technology, there is a broader societal context that we need to consider. One of the really terrific aspects of the CSIRO SynBio Future Science Platform is that we’ve imbedded social science into our research program to help navigate these issues and help CSIRO develop its SynBio program responsibly. It is very much in our interests as researchers too: we all want to be developing technology that is adopted and benefits society, rather than wasting our time and resources on projects that never come to fruition.


What was the last really good synthetic biology paper you read?

Colin: Pretty much anything from Frances Arnold’s lab is worth a read – she’s awesome and pioneered the concept of harnessing evolutionary principles to produce enzymes with novel functions. The last couple of papers describing her lab’s organoborane and silicon-carbon bond forming enzymes are terrific, these are enzymatic functions that we’d not seen anywhere in nature. If you have time you should read some of her reviews too, they’re very accessible and a great primer for the type of work that we do.

Nobuhiko Tokuriki’s work is also fantastic, providing some real fundamental insights into the mechanisms and constraints that underpin the evolution of enzyme function. His most recent paper, with Patricia Babbitt, shows a nice method for identifying unexplored and underexplored enzyme families, which could be a source of novel biochemical diversity. I also have a soft spot for metalloenzymes, so his 2015 paper on metal cofactor promiscuity was one that I really enjoyed.

If I weren’t doing science, I’d like a creative job, doing something in Sci-Fi for TV, movies or computer games.

Colin and the CSIRO biocatalysis team. Image by Colin Scott

If you weren’t working in synthetic biology, what area would you work in?

One of the most attractive aspects of SynBio is that it allows for real creativity. I think it often comes as a surprise to non-scientists that scientists and engineers are generally really creative people, and that creativity is really at the core of what we do. I’m also an enormous Sci-Fi nerd, which isn’t a prerequisite for a successful science career (which might also surprise non-scientists!). If I weren’t doing science, I think I’d like a creative job, doing something in Sci-Fi for TV, movies or computer games.


Do you think synthetic biology is synonymous to applied research?

Colin: It depends a bit on how you view applied research. SynBio is an engineering discipline and its practitioners make things, devices, genetic circuits, novel fermentation organisms or crops. It would be somewhat wasteful of resource to do this without some application in mind. Many of these applications will be commoditised, but some will be used to enable new avenues for fundamental research. Techniques for modifying cell walls in plants, for example, will provide new biobased fibres for making clothes, but will also provide new tools for understanding cell wall biology in much greater depth than we do currently.


We need to work in a co-ordinated and collegiate manner to make the most out of SynBio.

What do you think is the biggest challenge synthetic biology will need to overcome?

Colin: Fragmentation. There are so many potential applications for SynBio and so many fundamentally exciting potential projects. On the other hand we have finite resource (emphatically so in Australia). As a community of practice, we can’t afford to spread ourselves too thinly or to waste resource by duplicating effort and infrastructure. We need to work in a co-ordinated and collegiate manner if we’re to make the most of SynBio in Australia. This was one of the major drivers for the foundation of the CSIRO SynBio FSP, which has been remarkably effective in connecting Australian SynBio research nodes with each other and with the leading SynBio research hubs globally.


Would you eat animal-free meat made by synthetic biology?

Colin: Yes, absolutely. If we have a technological solution that improves animal welfare, it would be unethical to not use it.

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