Consilience is in their Nature


(L-R) Dr Tom Williams, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Sakkie Pretorius and Thom Dixon.

Synthetic Biology is one of those ‘whoah!’ fields, where the possibilities start reading like a sci-fi novel: plants that can tell you when they need watering or a mask that can sense when there are traces of COVID-19 in the air around you.

Macquarie is at the very forefront of this innovation as the host of the $70m ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (COESB). But the COESB isn’t just focused on the science of synthetic biology. It’s also progressing knowledge around its industrial translation and the ethical, legal and governance aspects surrounding the introduction of a major new technology.

In an impressive example of Macquarie’s multidisciplinary approach, Thom Dixon, Dr Tom Williams and Professor Sakkie Pretorius recently had a paper published in prestigious journal Nature Communications, examining the incredible potential of the integration of biological, digital and cyber-physical systems, alongside the broader implications, benefits and risks of this integration.

Collaborating as a multidisciplinary group for the first time, the three relished in the different assumptions and viewpoints they each bought to the table, with consilience strongly at the heart of the project.

“A large part of the engineering biology story has been about getting people from every academic discipline to re-imagine the capabilities of biology and think about the current and future impacts of new technologies with their own disciplinary lens,” say the team. “So instead of the ethical, legal and governance aspects having to ‘keep up’ with the science, collaborations like these – that are based on consilience – enable research into science and its social dimensions to progress at the same pace.”

This space where science, technology and power meet is one that Thom is particularly interested in. Having already amassed a Macquarie bachelor degree in International Communication, as well as a Masters in International Business and International Relations, Thom is now undertaking a PhD at Macquarie which focuses on power and the convergence of the life sciences with the information and computing sciences.

Oh, and there’s also his role in Research Services leading the University’s national research assessments, including the complex work of preparing Macquarie’s submissions for the next rounds of ERA and EI.

“There’s certainly enough to keep me busy for the next few years,” Thom laughs.

Busy would also describe Sakkie’s working life as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and member of the Executive Group. But despite his jam-packed schedule, the acclaimed molecular microbiologist wouldn’t dream of stepping away from the ‘coalface’ of research.

“Ever since I peeked through a microscope and observed budding yeast cells multiplying for the first time, I have been hooked on the wonderment of life’s genetic code,” Sakkie says. “The researcher in me will never stop seeking new discoveries or learning from the ever-expanding scholarly knowledge across the breadth of Macquarie’s research spectrum.”

He says remaining an active member of the University’s research community is important to his role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research).

“It means I can genuinely celebrate every research breakthrough and empathise with every knockback, which keeps me realistic in my expectations,” Sakkie says. “Working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries expands my vision for research at Macquarie and hones my strategic thinking and decision making as DVCR.”

As to future collaborations for the three, the possibilities are as plentiful as the applications of synthetic biology are broad. But with COVID-19 putting a global focus on pandemics, it’s one area that the team are particularly interested in exploring.

“Synthetic biology – and in particular biofoundries like Macquarie’s – can make a substantial contribution to pandemic preparedness,” notes Tom. “This ability to improve the world through the application of synthetic biology is what originally attracted me to the field and what keeps me excited.”

Learn more about the incredible possibilities of synthetic biology in the team’s recent interview with The Lighthouse.





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