Future Science Fellow seeks to solve toxic spills

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Future Science Fellow seeks to solve toxic spills

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Dr Nina Pollak

16 August 2017

A new University of the Sunshine Coast researcher has been awarded a three-year CSIRO Future Science Fellowship to explore the use of synthetic biology to develop multicellular organisms capable of detecting toxic spills in aquatic environments.

Dr Nina Pollak, who moved to Australia in 2014 after graduating with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Graz in her native Austria, started work at USC this week (14 August).

She has received one of 11 nationwide fellowships for early-career postdoctoral researchers, with her project now forming part of CSIRO’s $13 million investment in the creation of a Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (SynBio FSP).

Synthetic biology is a highly interdisciplinary science, drawing on biology, engineering, and computer science, among other fields, and has potential applications in areas as diverse as manufacturing, human health, agriculture and protecting ecosystems.

Dr Pollak, of Maroochydore, said she would use the fellowship to explore how these techniques could be combined with tissue engineering to develop structures capable of detoxifying aquatic environments.

“This is a really exciting opportunity that will allow me to perform some ground-breaking research, beyond any existing capabilities,” she said.

“I’m aiming to use synthetic biology techniques to build a multicellular structure, like biological tissue, which can move and sense certain things in the environment. If successful, this technology could potentially be used to detect toxins in aquatic environments and produce enzymes to break them down.

“An example of this problem could be contaminant run-off, such as pesticides with the potential to cause harm to aquatic species, animals and humans nearby.”

Dr Pollak, whose PhD was in metabolic and cardiovascular disease, has previously conducted research in Austria and New York to increase understanding of a process called lipolysis which breaks down lipids (fat) in the body.

“I’m now interested in environmental health and protection because I can see how the development of synthetic biology components may really help,” she said.

She will be supervised at USC by Associate Professor of Molecular Engineering Joanne Macdonald and Associate Professor of Molecular Biology Scott Cummins.

Dr Macdonald said, “We are excited to extend the boundaries of synthetic biology towards solutions to human problems.”

CSIRO SynBio FSP Leader Associate Professor Claudia Vickers said: “Synthetic biology has significant potential for generating benefits for society and is set to drive innovation in a large number of diverse industries going into the future.

“The role of the Future Science Program is to improve Australia’s capabilities in this field, and position us to understand, adapt and contribute to this innovation in a responsible way to maintain Australian competitiveness.

“These fellowships will help grow the capability of a new generation of researchers and attract the best students and experts to work with us on future science in Australia.”

Dr Pollak also will be a Visiting Fellow at CSIRO, mentored and connected to the developing Australian synthetic biology community.

— Julie Schomberg

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