In 2022, TBI has been awarded two Junior Professorships allowing to recruit two scientists who have already demonstrated their ability to produce excellent research. The themes studied by these scientists show the richness and breadth of research conducted at the laboratory. Meet Lorie Hamelin, laureate of the INRAE chair dedicated to supporting sustainable and intelligent transitions towards tomorrow's low-fossil carbon economies; and Christophe Danelon, winner of the INSA "synthetic cells" chair.
Meeting with Lorie HAMELIN
What is your background?
I completed my master's degree and engineering studies in agricultural engineering at Laval University in Canada. I then pursued a PhD at the University of Southern Denmark, where my research focused on evaluating the role of biomass in a sustainable Danish strategy to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050. After completing my PhD, I took on a post-doc position and later became an assistant professor at the same University. Within the framework of the ERA Chair1 programfunded by the European Union, I spent a year in Poland working to strengthen research capabilities in the field of bioeconomy. In 2018, I was selected as a recipient of the French MOPGA program , allowing me to be Principal Investigator on the Cambioscop.
What is your expertise?
I am an expert in environmental analysis with the life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology. My expertise is at the interface between environmental engineering, renewable energy systems, circular economy and bioeconomy. I am interested in major system transitions and in particular in the transition to a low fossil carbon economy, a must to reach the Paris agreement goals. I also have a strong expertise in agro-ecology due to my training in agricultural engineering.
What is this chair about?
The Chair focuses on transitions towards a low-fossil carbon economies. It has 3 main research axes: (1) Inducing additional carbon sequestration (negative emissions), (2) leaving fossil resources in the ground, (3) developing sustainable alternatives to fossil resources.
The first axis involves studying the potential for carbon sequestration in agricultural soils, in particular through the use of cover crops on bare soils, examining the environmental impacts of different strategies for utilizing the biomass generated by these crops (e.g. incorporation of the biomass to soils as green manure or harvesting it completely or partially for e.g. biogas or bio-materials production).
The second axis aims to improve the understanding of decision making by bioeconomy stakeholders, particularly in regards to the use of the information supplied by life cycle assessments. I here envision to derive a few key performance indicators that are relevant to the actors in the sectors concerned by the transition to a low-carbon fossil economy, which could vary according to the sector and the territory. I envisage conducting interviews to determine whether stakeholders understand the indicators and prospective scenarios currently used, whether they consider them relevant for decision-making, and whether they are considering other indicators and scenarios. The vision is to ensure that technological solutions are translated into a real societal project, and to identify and address the non-technological barriers that stand in the way of this transition to a low-carbon fossil economy.
How will the Chair be organized?
This Chair is a position that lasts for 3 years and, upon successful evaluation, can lead to a ‘DR2’ tenure at INRAE. I am affiliated with the SOPHYEteam at TBI. The Chair includes teaching duties (up to 42h per year), primarily at INSA Toulouse, within the GP3E department. The research of the Chair will be connected to my other ongoing projects (e.g. ALIGNED, NEGEM, Solnovo). The financial support associated with the Chair (ANR, INRAE), will allow me to hire and train young scientists to work on the different axes of the Chair, and to cover the expenses related to the research progress.
Where do you want to direct your research in the future?
I am committed to contributing to research that will allow, even if it is a drop in the ocean, limiting global warming below 2°C, with a minimum of trade-offs with the other environmental impacts. My future research will continue to focus on finding solutions to (i) keep fossil carbon in the ground, (ii) develop sustainable alternatives to replace fossil carbon, and (iii) induce negative emissions (long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon). I also hope to contribute to a certain harmonization of the LCA methodology and bring methodological advancements, particularly in regards to its application to bio-based products and services, as there is currently some confusion that could undermine the credibility of the method.
What is your background?
I am a former student of the University of Paul Sabatier in Toulouse and I did my thesis in biophysics at the IPBS. Then, I spent 6 years at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland as a post-doc and as a teacher-researcher. In January 2010, I was appointed as an assistant professor at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, where I set up my laboratory on the topic of synthetic cells.
Meeting with Christophe Danelon
What is your expertise?
My activities are focused on synthetic biology, more particularly on a field called "cell-free" or outside the cell frame. We do molecular and cellular engineering but outside a living cell. Other important components of our research include molecular, membrane and cell biophysics. This discipline is part of my scientific culture and I apply it in quantitative biology for example. Or in computational modeling or the use of advanced methods in analytical microscopy.
Did you know that TBI has been participating in the iGEM competition for several years?
Yes, I am also in charge of an iGEM team in the Netherlands and I will now participate in the coaching of the iGEM Toulouse team. It is also through iGEM that I started to identify and get interested in TBI and INSA Toulouse. The beautiful results of iGEM Toulouse these last years made me quite curious about the research work in synthetic biology carried out at TBI. It is a nice showcase for the laboratory and it is something that stimulated my curiosity to approach TBI and see if there were possibilities to join the laboratory.
The chair is called "synthetic cell", what do you want to set up during this chair?
It is a project that aims at recreating a living cell, in line with the research that I have been carrying out for almost 13 years. One of the strong pillars of our approach is the use of lipid vesicles that act as a compartment. Then we encapsulate inside this vesicle a coding DNA to have all the biological functions encoded in genes. So, we have a compartment, we have DNA which serves as a support for heredity and evolution, and we have a machinery which converts the genetic program into proteins that realize essential cellular functions, such as the synthesis of phospholipids for vesicle growth. But also all the proteins that are involved in DNA replication and in the division of the vesicle. We call these 'modules', key biological functions that we are trying to reconstitute.
Our innovative strategy now, and the environment at TBI is conducive to develop this type of project, is declined on 2 axes:
- directed evolution, that is to say, the use of the principles of Darwinian evolution applied in the laboratory, to optimize these cellular modules, and as a source of innovation to create increasingly complex functions that resemble the behavior of living cells. The idea is to alleviate the principles of directed evolution that have existed for decades in biochemistry and molecular biology, to systems and synthetic biology. We are not talking here about the evolution of an isolated enzyme but of synthetic metabolic pathways or genetic circuits. Thus, we are moving from directed evolution on the scale of a protein to directed evolution on the scale of an entire artificial system.
- - The second technological innovation that we want to implement in our roadmap is high-throughput robotic methods that will allow us to screen a large number of initial conditions, i.e. to explore genetic sequences and molecular compositions on a large scale. Automation will thus make it possible to produce artificial cells that are increasingly autonomous.
In short, it is the utilization of high-throughput experimentation coupled with the principles of directed evolution in the laboratory that will serve as a lever to push the limits of cell-free synthetic biology cell-free to a level that has not been reached until now.
From an organizational point of view, how will this chair work?
I will join the I2M team of TBI. In my case, the contract is for 3 years. At the end of these 3 years, I will be evaluated in order to become a full professor at INSA. The budget of the chair allows me to hire a PhD student, and there is additional budget to buy material and equipment. I plan to recruit a student next September. One goal is to create a dynamic team around the synthetic cell with very strong ramifications in fundamental biology but also in applied research, which could also fit other themes within TBI and INSA or on the Toulouse campus in general.
I intend to create a scientific pole at TBI at the forefront of international research in synthetic cells with local collaborators, dedicated technological platforms and academic and industrial users.
What is a chair?
A junior professorship is a new way of recruiting for a permanent position in the civil service as a research director or university professor. After a pre-tenure period of 3 to 6 years and after an evaluation, this person can be tenured as a research director (DR2) or university professor, after the opinion of a tenure commission.