Nicola Patron – Biological Engineer

Nicola Patron – Biological Engineer

Norwich, Earlham Institute

What do you do?

I’m a synthetic biologist and biological engineer, particularly in plants. One of ours is to engineer plants that are good at making molecules with human uses. Until recently, approaches for engineering biology have bespoke and non-standard, particularly in comparison to the processes used to design and make new cars or aeroplanes. if the products of biotechnology are to find their way onto the market place, we need to scale up the way we do biology. There are lots of advantages to using plants for manufacturing. Plants use photosynthetic systems to produce energy, meaning we can engineer them to make useful molecules and only need to provide them with light and water, this is definitely one of those advantages.

Another important issue we deal with in our labs is intellectual property. At the moment it is almost impossible to start a new company based on plant biotechnology because much of the intellectual property for the basic techniques are owned by a handful of huge companies. Scientist tend to be motivated to work on things that are important to them, so it’s incredibly important that the scientific community is reflective of the wider community. We want more inclusivity and diversity in biotechnology, because this makes it more likely that biotechnology will be used to solve local problems in health and agriculture that big companies do not see a way to profit from. Most of the tools and techniques we develop in our lab are made openly available, under a new legal process called the Open Material Transfer Agreement. This process was co-developed with colleagues in Cambridge and at the BioBricks foundation in the USA. Already these tools and processes are being used in South Africa and other developing countries.

In the image you can see the LabCyte Echo machine, it moves tiny samples of liquid around by acoustic energy! The machine works out the viscosity of the sample liquid and fires an acoustic wave at it. This dispenses nano-droplets into the collection tube so it is possible to accurately set up reactions at very low volumes.

When I’m not doing science I…

I really wanted to be an explorer or astronaut when I was growing up, being a scientist was the closest I could get to discovery! So, because of this I like to travel to and explore really remote places. The more remote and the more diverse the biology, the more I enjoy them. Going to places where all the plants or animal species are completely different to the local environment and looking at how they have adapted to their environment, is very exciting.