Today, McCallum is working on the biological oscillator project. The aim of her portion of the research initiative is to have a system that will oscillate with the period she wants no matter what condition she grows the cells in.
Like Potvin-Trottier, McCallum also recognizes ways in which her work could affect people’s lives. She uses artemisinic acid – a precursor to an anti-malarial drug – to illustrate her point. Synthetic biologists engineer yeast to produce the compound to avoid extraction from its natural plant source.
“Future goals would be to actually apply this to something like periodic drug delivery by using engineered probiotics, for example. Or utilizing these clocks to control microbial metabolism and improving the production of useful compounds in synthetic biology, such as artemisinic acid,” she says.
“There are quite a few potential applications, but for now I’m focused on the more fundamental aspects of the project.”
Genes and critical biological processes
Located on the same floor as the Potvin Lab in the Genomics Building (GE) on the Loyola Campus is the Kachroo Laboratory. Led by Aashiq Kachroo, assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Systems and Synthetic Biology, the group is interested in repurposing model organisms by replacing human genes in yeast and other simplified cells.
Currently, the team is investigating whether all essential yeast genes are replaceable by their human counterparts. “All organisms on Earth share a common ancestor, which means we share many genes despite billions of years of separate evolution. Our work focuses on understanding a fundamental question in biology: Are shared genes functionally equivalent?” Kachroo explains.
“We have finished the humanization of all essential genes and have shown that approximately 40 per cent of shared human genes are still swappable in yeast.”
Kachroo’s interest in synthetic biology started during his PhD studies at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, India. There, he worked on a system in bacteria that, when mutated, utilizes one of the most abundant carbon sources in the world, cellulose.
“I figured that if we engineered the bacterial strain to degrade this carbon source, we would help solve the energy crisis that our planet is facing,” Kachroo says. Since then, Kachroo has shifted his focus toward critical human genes and how they are involved in essential biological processes. His research could have far-reaching effects since any mutations that alter the function of proteins encoded by these genes often lead to human diseases.
“We engineer these shared biological processes in simplified cells like budding yeast,” Kachroo says. “Thus, using evolution to guide synthetic biology, we make surrogate strains that resemble humans at the molecular level. This allows us to study these processes in isolation, asking questions like how the disease is manifested at the cellular level and what needs to change to revert the disease phenotype.”
For Kachroo, joining Concordia in August 2017 had a lot to do with the university’s clear mission and focus on synthetic biology. He appreciates the faculty’s new members and the university’s aim to recruit the best of the best.
“We also house the only Genome Foundry in Canada, with access to state-of-art robotics to scale up the synthetic biology projects,” he says. “Concordia has the best resources available to train young enthusiastic students in synthetic biology.”