June 29, 2020, by Lexi Earl
Working with worms: an interview with Dr Carlos Lopez Viso
Carlos Lopez Viso is a postdoctoral researcher on the Future Proteins Platform. He is working on the production of mealworms as a new source of sustainable proteins for aquaculture. In order to do that, he is applying genetic techniques to modify the protein and fat content of these insects.
Prior to joining the Future Food beacon at UoN, Carlos was a Research Fellow at the University Pablo de Olavide (Seville, Spain) where he got his PhD working on an innovative biotechnological process in fermenters. As an expert in C. elegans, he also researched using this nematode as a model organism for biomedical studies and screenings of drugs and nutritional supplements for treatment of genetic diseases. His interdisciplinary career has been developed in collaboration between the University and private companies.
Tell me about your research journey? How did you end up at UoN?
I am a biotechnologist. I did my PhD at University Pablo de Olavide (Seville, Spain) in biotechnology, engineering and chemical technology. I researched using waste to produce biodiesel through a biological process in bioreactors. It included genetic and engineering tools. Then I have carried out several projects based on screening with drugs, probiotics, plants and fungi extracts as disease treatments using a model organism in biomedical studies. Additionally, I have been involved in the creation of a spin-off, based on the production of live food for feeding fish larvae in aquaculture, which is related to my current project here (using different organisms).
That is quite a diverse array of projects. What connects them altogether?
The main connection is that I have worked with the same organism (Caenorhabditis elegans). This nematode was the first multicellular organism completely sequenced. Therefore, many genetic tools have been developed, being a quite famous nematode used for biomedical studies that we applied to our screenings. Additionally, the aim of my PhD project had a completely different approach. We implemented an innovative industrial bioprocess using this organism to obtain a waste re-evaluation.
What is it like moving through these different research projects?
It is exciting! We tried to apply the knowledge, resources and training we have about this organism; looking for links between complementary projects. For example, we used the available genetic knowledge about fat related diseases to modify the C. elegans composition in terms of fat accumulation for the biodiesel project. As another example, we carried out the optimization of cultures in bioreactors that could be extrapolated to other processes with different waste.
How do you explain your research to ordinary people?
I try to describe what biotechnology is about: to use biological tools (microorganisms, for example) and apply them to processes using genetics, engineering and technology knowledge.
In my previous research this meant we eliminated a residue, which is an environmental and an economic problem. In order to do that, we grew an organism on the residue to remove it and obtain a product that generates income. It allows the process to be more sustainable and profitable. For biomedical projects, the idea is to use a simple organism with interesting characteristics to mimic human diseases. It is a good way to test drugs and nutritional supplements quickly, cheaply and without need for other more complex organisms. I have worked with C. elegans as a model of diabetes, obesity, infertility, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Currently, I do research in order to produce new sources of proteins in a sustainable and cheaper way. Particularly, we are focused on the production of insects for fish feeding. To do that we try to improve characteristics of interest (fat and protein – both quality and quantity) through genetic techniques.
What will you be doing as part of the Future Proteins Platform?
The main goal of my current project is to produce new sources of protein using mealworms (an insect). We are focused on using the proteins in aquaculture. We tackle this project by applying genetic silencing by RNA interference which means we can modify the gene expression on the mealworms in order to increase the protein and decrease the fat matter content. We have designed diverse strategies to get suitable targets as the genome sequencing and a cross-species microarray for different larval stages.
Additionally, I aim to be involved in different projects and participate in internal and external collaborations to promote a multidisciplinary environment that characterises the Future Protein Platform.
How does your research affect ordinary people?
We hope it will have a huge impact in society. Currently, our food system is not sustainable. We need diverse solutions at many levels. Fish consumption is one of these issues. As marine reserves run out, aquaculture is becoming increasingly crucial. If people want to eat good quality fish in the future, we need to find a sustainable source of protein to feed them. Otherwise, fish consumption will not be possible for ordinary families, maybe only for rich people. In this sense, our project aims to tackle this problem using insects as a sustainable source of protein not only for aquaculture, but also for other farm animals.
How did you become interested in science and working in the lab?
I am excited about the challenge of having a problem and finding a solution. There are sometimes more problems than solutions and more questions than answers! However, it is a pleasure when you have a hypothesis and you get results that can support it having a positive effect in society.
How did you know you were interested in science?
I think I have been interested in science all my life. I love nature. And I enjoyed making puzzles and model ships that, as science, is all about applying methods, techniques and being patient. Biology, maths and technology were the most interesting subjects at high school for me. In my opinion, having a multidisciplinary background lets me enjoy different branches of the science.
You have a very interdisciplinary background, what is it like being based in nutrition now?
Obviously, my current project has a final goal related with nutrition, which is not my main background but I am glad to learn more deeply about insects and nutrition. However, the way to tackle these questions is based on biotechnology; applying genetic and analytical tools which are in line with my background. I try to combine my previous experience with new learnings.
What is it like being part of Future Food?
I love being part of a multidisciplinary team. You can learn and collaborate all the time. People work towards common goals but with different approaches, and backgrounds. I think the best way to enrich yourself is in a space like this one.
Do you have any advice for younger scientists and PhD students?
You should do whatever you want. I know it is a topic, but it is true. The scientific difficulties do not matter if you are doing the kind of work you are really passionate about. Everyone needs to find his own way.
What do you think you might do in the future?
I like both environments (academia and industry). Above all, I like applied science. Basic science is essential but I prefer working on applied projects. I feel it is more exciting because you can see the potential social impact. Therefore, I will probably stay in academia and try to work on applied projects. I am open minded about it and I might consider moving into the industrial sector linked to research and development.