By K Vavitsas 

Julius Fredens is one of the newest members of Singapore’s synbio community. After obtaining his PhD from University of Southern Denmark, he moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge to work with Professor Jason Chin on genetic code compression. Julius was the driving force behind creating the first organism with a fully synthetic genome utilising only 61 codons. 

 In late 2021, Julius joined NUS SynCTI as an Assistant Professor to work on genome engineering of bacteria and bacteriophage. I took the chance to ask Julius about his research journey so far, his experience in conducting research in different countries, and his plans for the future. 

 We have the pleasure to host Julius Fredens for a webinar on 26 April, 2pm SGT. Reab more about the webinar and register here: https://sinergy.sg/event/reprogramming-the-genetic-code-and-how-to-use-it/ .

You came to Singapore in the second half of 2021. How were your first few months in NUS and what are your research plans for the near future? 

Julius Fredens with Assistant Professor Jiahai Shi at NUS

It has been a pleasure to settle in here, both personally and professionally. Of course the pandemic made the transition a bit bumpy; I had to delay my travel and stay on the sofa of friends and family in Europe for a couple of extra months until Singapore’s boarders opened. And after two weeks of quarantine, I was released into the concrete jungle without the Trace Together app and therefore no access to grocery stores or hawker centres. But it was quickly solved and I started to feel the rewards for going through the hassle.

Furnishing an empty lab and hiring a good research team is so different from working as a postdoc in an established lab. It is a steep learning curve and require a whole other skill set to be put into play, but it has been very rewarding. I must add that a strong support from NUS at all levels is a major reason why this has been such a positive experience. Without that support and guidance it would have been touch to navigate.

The pandemic is still impacting the delivery of equipment and supply of reagents, so my team and I are only now getting ready for the really exciting experiments. We have some interesting ideas for genome engineering of bacterial viruses – bacteriophages – with the long-term goal to combat multiple diseases. Over the coming months, we will start seeing the results of the first experiments, and we can barely wait to scrutinise them and see, where the work takes us.

Your research so far was pushing the boundaries within which cells operate by redesigning the genetic code. What was the motivation of engaging in this direction and what can we expect from this line of research? (meaning works that target the fundamentals of cell operations such as synthetic genomes, unnatural amino acids, etc) 

The genetic code is near-universal throughout all life forms in our biosphere. It was therefore really intriguing when we eyed a chance to rewrite and rewire a genetic language that had remained frozen throughout 3.5 billion years of evolution. Besides the fascination with life and its underlaying code, the work was driven by an interest in genetic code expansion; the engineering of a genetic code that goes beyond nature’s 20 canonical amino acids. This gives bioengineers free hands to introduce new chemical properties into designer protein with full control of their position.

A very different aspect of a rewired genetic code is the incompatibility between such an organism and all other life forms. I demonstrated how a bacterium with an altered genetic code is resistant to virus infection, in the same way as computers with different operating systems usually don’t contract the same computer virus. This concept applies to all kinds of genetic exchange in nature and will prove highly relevant for future biosafety and biocontainment.

You have lived in Denmark, UK, and now in SG. What do you think you gained by conducting research in these countries? 

One of the many advantages of being in academic research is the opportunity to live and work in international environments all other the world. I have been fortunate enough to be able to align my research with the core expertise of the countries I worked in and therefore learn very different skill sets from the best in their field.

During my studies and PhD in Denmark, I worked with experts in proteomics by mass-spectrometry, which facilitated exciting biological discovery. The UK has a strong focus on genomics and synthetic biology, and that was instrumental to our work on altering the genetic code. With these fantastic techniques as a foundation, Singapore offers a great research environment that is focused on applications and fruitful collaborations with industry.

What would be the one most important piece of advice you would give to a student interested in a career (academic or industry) within the field of synbio and biotech?

Synbio is like a box of Lego bricks, so it’s really all about inspiration and then picking up the technical skills along the way. A great way for curious students – and Lego connoisseurs – to get a taste of SynBio is the student competition iGEM, where teams of students execute their ideas and thoroughly communicate the process; it creates a catalogue of creative projects, how they use the available toolbox, and how they overcome challenges. This emphasis on accessible communication makes the iGEM community a great starting point, even if you are unable to join a team or need a little more to be convinced.

But it comes with a warning: Synbio is super exciting, and if you venture out on this journey, you may never return to your Lego bricks.