Dr Francisco Navarro

Francisco J. Navarro's work focuses on the function of small RNA (sRNA) molecules and their use as regulatory elements in synthetic gene circuits. sRNA molecules most likely evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and retro-transposons, and were co-opted for fine-tuning of gene expression. Their small size and predictable targeting rules make them perfect tools for regulating gene expression in synthetic gene circuits. This project is carried out in the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which is amenable to genetic manipulation and a model organism for key plant processes, such as photosynthesis. With an sRNA pathway that resembles that of higher plants, Chlamydomonas allows to test proof-of-principle small RNA-based genetic devices before extrapolating to other plant species.

Francisco did his PhD in the laboratory of Prof. Jose Manuel Siverio (University of La Laguna, Spain). He focused on the nitrate assimilation process of the methylotrophic yeast Hansenula polymorpha, which has important biotechnological applications, and characterized the posttranslational regulation of the main nitrate transporter. This was followed by a postdoc in the laboratory of Sir Paul Nurse, first at The Rockefeller University, USA, and then at London Research Institute, on cell size control and regulation of gene expression by RNA-binding proteins. Through a systematic screening of a gene deletion collection of the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe, he identified a set of novel genes involved in the coordination between cell growth and cell cycle progression.

Francisco’s research interests concern questions regarding global regulation of gene expression and limits of cell growth. These questions are relevant to synthetic biology because synthetic gene circuits are embedded into the cell’s own gene circuits, and so their activities are not insulated from global cell regulation. He thinks that microorganisms will continue to be useful research models to uncover new exciting biology, and contribute to the advance of synthetic biology. The fast growth and recently available range of tools and resources are making unicellular algae interesting chassis for synthetic biology, with potential industrial applications in the biopharming sector.

He is also a collaborator of Café Synthetique, an informal monthly meetup with public talks that brings together the Cambridge synthetic biology community.