Interview with EUSynBioS

16 September, 2019

Kostas Vavitsas: Where did you start your research and how did you land your current position?

Kyle J. Lauersen: I moved to Saudi Arabia a about a month ago. I left Germany a few days before that to spend some time with my family and friends in Canada before making the exciting transition to KAUST.

I did my undergraduate, teaching degree and Master’s at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. I then moved to Germany to do my doctorate at Bielefeld University, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Olaf Kruse in the Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec) facilitated by the CLIB Graduate Cluster scholarship program (part of Horizon 2020). By the end of my doctorate, I was able to demonstrate that a specific strategy of spreading an enhancing intron throughout codon optimized transgenes to minimize exon lengths and mimic native regulation machinery could mediate their reliable overexpression from the nuclear genome of the alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. This technology enabled us over the last 5 years to demonstrate numerous examples of heterologous gene overexpression and the first examples of concerted metabolic engineering with this eukaryotic algal host, work which was largely done during my Post-Doc time also at the CeBiTec with Prof. Dr. Kruse. See our patchoulol paper.

I was very fortunate that I was able to act in a sense as a junior group leader and had the good fortune of working with (now Drs.) Thomas Baier and Julian Wichmann in an intimate team dynamic with complementing skills and expertise. Together with several bachelors and masters students we could focus on algal biotechnology and produce some solid work over the last 5 years.

How did I get my position? I think I came at the right time as KAUST is expanding towards impact focussed and translational research, so our work using algae as green cell factories really tweaked local interest. I was invited to KAUST to give a presentation on collaborative work with Prof. Salim Al Babili and at the end of the talk several senior faculty members approached me to ask if I would be interested in coming to KAUST. At that point I was applying for other faculty positions, so I accepted an interview and was back within a short time to conduct an intense week-long interview. At the end, I was informed that the Division was interested in hiring me as a Faculty member and, after a very short amount of thinking about it, decided it would be an excellent place to grow an algal biotechnology hub.

Kostas: What are the particular challenges of working with photosynthetic microbes?

Kyle: I always wanted to work with photosynthetic organisms. My undergrad research background is in plant biotechnology, I was engineering trees during my undergrad with Prof. Sharon Regan at Queen’s and engineering grass and ice binding proteins with Prof. VIrginia Walker during my Master’s. Also, I am a green guy, I didn’t want to work, say, with animal models. Compared to these systems (or most heterotrophic microbes), algae are easy to handle, smell better, and illuminated cultivation spaces full of green things (or other colours) are generally nice to look at. 

I think we are reaching a point where we need to be resource efficient. We like eating, we like breathing, being mobile, wearing clothes… all theses things are powered, at their origin, by photosynthesis, which makes working with photosynthetic organisms an incredibly logical pursuit.

The biggest challenge of working with algae is the limited investment in research time compared to heterotrophs. So generally, although we build on our predecessors, we are often doing work which has long been figured out in other hosts. Algae research used to be a small part of bigger plant-oriented labs, and only recently we see more dedicated algae research groups.

Now some needed technology is emerging, mainly overcoming technical challenges of how to grow algae in industrial settings or overcome the space-time yield limitations of phototrophic cultivation. Reactor designs like the Subitec system and those coming from CellDeg with CO2 permeabilization membranes are generating truly impressive yields of biomass from CO2. Aggressive and systematic handling of phototrophic microbes is also improving our ability to engineer novel traits. We can get Chlamydomonas transformants in a very short time (4-5 days) and combined with the MoClo or our (pOptimized) modular vector systems, I think we’re at a golden age of possibilities for engineering improvements in these hosts. Also the amenability to microbial handling with robotic systems will improve our turnover rates, which is a great advantage.

Kostas: Sustainability as a common theme among the researchers we interview. Will it bear fruit?

Kyle: I’m very optimistic that what we’re doing will have a real impact in the future. Photosynthetic biotechnology is one part of the greater spectrum of sustainable technologies that are rapidly needed, advancing and coming to market. One good applied example of this is on-site carbon capture, algae can sequester CO2 in the same facility where it is emitted. And keep in mind that there is no faster way to produce photosynthetic biomass than by algae (in the right cultivation set-ups).

The sustainability argument is of course not limited to photosynthetic organisms. And any applications need to be combined with other technologies to become more efficient. What we’re doing will not ‘save the world’ on its own, but it is one incredibly important piece of the puzzle. So we need to boost translational research within the field and increase communication between stakeholders at all levels. This is something that we are seeing now in many EU consortia, like the Horizon 2020 project Photofuel (among many others), which I had the pleasure to take part in 

Kostas: How can we better do translational research with algae? 

Kyle: There was a lot of hype in the field through the last 20 years that has made investors more skeptical on the commercial value of algal applications. But this means that we need to make our argument stronger and provide real practical examples of where algal systems really shine. For example, Algenuity is working on interesting applications of reduced pigment content Chlorella, a great protein source. I think important goals now are to produce a lot more clean biomass of high quality, and demonstrate engineered algae in high-density cultivation concepts that compete with yeast or prokaryotic counterparts. And we need to engage more with material scientists, process designers, and chemists to tailor our lab-scale practices to be amenable to outdoor, or large scale cultivation.

Kostas: When is the right time to apply for a PI position?

Kyle: I don’t have any real wisdom to offer on the topic. I was lucky, I applied only to 10 other positions, which in itself was an emotional rollercoaster over the course of a year..

The process is a bit of a soul-searching exercise. I am Canadian, and I had obtained permanent residency in Germany, had culturally adapted, and had a very good working environment at the CeBiTec. Whenever I was applying to a position I had to imagine myself living there. And when you move to a new place it is a mental hurdle to readapt. Mobility for scientists is both a blessing and a curse: you get to travel but you have a nomadic lifestyle.

Coming back to the question, when to apply… it depends where you are and the support you have. In my case, although I had a great network around the world and Bielefeld was a fantastic incubator, I couldn’t materialize my connections into a permanent position as my network consisted largely of algae people and their institutes weren’t looking for more. What I should have likely done is go to more generalist conferences or meetings and advertise myself to a broader audience.

Kostas: When did you decide you wanted to become a PI? Have you contemplated other roles?

Kyle: I can tell you exactly when. It was during my research internship the summer before my fourth year BSc honours thesis. I walked into Sharon Regan’s lab, and I saw miniature poplar trees growing in sterile magenta boxes in MS agar medium. This was the first time I had seen anything like this and I was instantly hooked, I knew I wanted to stay in such an environment and become a PI. I tried some business and entrepreneurial projects, but academic research always pulled me back.

Kostas: What is the advice you would give to early career researchers in synthetic biology?

Kyle: You have to be self aware and surround yourself with people that can teach your things and work with you to a shared goal. In your younger years you should explore as many things as possible, later during your PhD you should focus, build a team around you and get alot of output.

Put your emotions aside and work really really hard, be consistent, get up everyday, go to work, and be very vocal. Communicate your expectations and work.

Keep networking. Career progression in science is to a large extent merit based, but it will only take you so far. For example, I don’t have any Science or Nature papers (yet?), but the team in Bielefeld and I have produced some pretty solid research. And don’t forget to develop your soft skills!


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