Welcome to The Short Read, our weekly peek behind the curtain at the people who make this amazing community tick. Make sure to check back every Tuesday for the latest installment.

Maciej Maselko, Postdoctoral Associate, Smanski Group, University of Minnesota

During his PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Oregon State University, Maciej concerned himself with developing microbicides capable of preventing the spread of HIV-1. In the 6 years since then, he’s spent time working on improving methods of plant transformation at Oregon State, before turning his attention to preventing the spread of intentional gene modifications instead, in the hopes that Synthetic Incompatibility, as it is known, will enable safer GMOs. With public concerns about GMOs remaining high, Maciej’s research with the Smanski Group at the University of Minnesota is one way by which people may become more accepting of the use of genomics in agriculture and farming

It’s been his work around transgene biocontainment that has led to Maciej being named one of the 2017 STAT Wunderkinds!

What are you working on right now?

Since demonstrating synthetic incompatibility, which allows us to essentially engineer a speciation event, in yeast, I’ve been working with several other members of the Smanski lab and multiple collaborators at the University of Minnesota to apply this technology to plants, insects, vertebrates, and nematodes.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work at the moment?

Misinformation about GMOs in the general public and the assumption amongst some scientists that this will never change. Both of these diminish the resources available for synthetic biology research and ultimately delay society from enjoying its benefits.

Name one big development that you would like to see in your field the next 18 months.

I’m very excited about the potential of transcriptional engineering with programmable transcription factors (e.g. dCas9-VPR). After all, the difference between a brain, muscle, or kidney cell is largely in which genes are expressed. Controlling the expression of existing genes may allow us to engineer cells and tissues with entirely new functionalities.

Unfortunately, it is still very difficult to know what level of transcriptional activation you can expect from targeting a programmable transcriptional activator to a particular site. I hope that there will be substantial progress on solving this problem in the next 18 months.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I was thinking about how to enable molecular farming on a large scale when I came up with synthetic incompatibility as a method to prevent gene flow between engineered plants without otherwise altering normal cultivation practices. It has been very exciting to realize how synthetic incompatibility enables many other possible applications such as the control of pest organisms or engineering animals to perform novel ecosystem services.

Which scientists, living, dead, or fictional, would you invite to dinner, and why?

I would invite Norman Borlaug and George Church to discuss how the future of synthetic biology can be applied to agricultural development for the next green revolution.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

To be more proactive in seeking out advice in the first place. I’m much more active in seeking out mentors now than earlier in my career and it has created or made me aware of many opportunities that I would have otherwise missed.


Opinions and views expressed in The Short Read are the interviewee’s and not those of the home institution


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