Because the field of synthetic biology is growing and changing exponentially, it’s crucial to train graduate students how to think and be creative, says Martin. “That way they can use that expertise wherever they end up.”
Corinne Cluis, PhD 14, knew pretty early on in her career that she wanted to translate what she liked about research and biology into products that were useable for society. As a PhD student in Martin’s lab, she produced coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant that’s been shown to alleviate symptoms related to heart diseases, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It’s also well known as an anti-wrinkle agent. The goal was to produce the molecule cheaply, using a non-pathogenic form of the bacteria E. coli and cheap substrates like glucose. Cluis managed to multiply the production of Q10 in E. coli 20 times.
Today she works in the strain development lab at Lallemand in Montreal, a company that specializes in producing yeast and bacteria products needed to make wine, animal feed, nutritional products, probiotics, biofuels and baking and food products. There is a cohort of four or five former students of
Martin’s working at the company. Cluis says the centre and Martin were crucial to the scope and success of her project: “He gave me a lot of freedom to think about my project, to try different things, to give it the direction that I wanted.” Martin also challenged Cluis to do the best she could. “He was also great at making me push boundaries, and encouraging me to be ambitious, not to do things that have been done in the past or that weren’t very original.”
A lot has changed in synthetic biology since 2014, but Cluis says what she does now is a direct application of what she learned during her PhD. “My way of thinking, trouble shooting and approaching research projects was really developed through my interactions with Dr. Martin.”
Martin hopes that’s the case. “What I can bring to my students, having spent and still spending time with these companies, is that I understand how they work, I understand what they’re looking for,” he says. Martin himself co-founded Amyris, a renewable products company that provides sustainable alternatives to a range of petroleum-sourced products. He continues to serve as its scientific advisor.
The centre is looking at developing programs for engineers and biologists, and that means crossing departments and faculties.
To do this, Kharma and Martin are applying for an educational Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. “It’s the best way we can leverage our expertise into a training program,” says Kharma. “It’s not a degree program; it uses existing structures and courses to train somebody in a particular area. That way our research will benefit teaching.”
Martin adds, “You have to build your academic programs to be adaptable and flexible so that when things change you can modify them.”
What will future research in Martin’s lab look like? Some projects will be moving into non-model systems. “We’re starting to biologically engineer things that people have never engineered before: different types of micro-organisms, different types of yeast,” he says.
Automating more and more of the lab processes is also a priority. “The biofoundry is going to be a big part of developing tools and technology to speed things up. This is where it’s heading,” Martin says. “We’re all going to be on computers, building, designing and creating biological systems and pushing a button and some assembly line somewhere will build it.”
His aspirations go beyond the centre. “Our hope is to get the seeds of automation going here at Concordia, and we want to push that into a national platform,” Martin says. “It’s not just for my lab. It’s for labs across the university, province and country.”
— Vanessa Bonneau is a Montreal freelance writer and editor