Meet the Community – Henrik Toft Simonsen

In this new series of interviews, we introduce community members who give us insight into what they do, why they joined the SynCellEU community, and what they expect from the initiative.

The first interviewee is Henrik Toft Simonsen, professor at Jean Monnet University in Saint-Etienne, France.

Trained as a pharmacist and chemist, Henrik fell into the field of biotechnology during his postdoc in 2006 and has been working in it ever since. He specializes in plant cells and studies terpenoids, fragrant molecules that he uses to develop drugs and pharmaceuticals. As a strong advocate of knowledge transfer from academia to industry, he would like SynCellEU to help researchers identify existing opportunities between industries and researchers in Europe.

Can you tell us more about your area of expertise?

I study plant cells, how they actually work and how to use them to make things for us. Plant cells are very far from being understood, we know the functionality of at most 5-10% of their translated enzymes and coding DNA. They are more complicated than human or bacterial cells due to their extra compartment and 3 genomes (nuclei, mitochondrial and chloroplastic). So in my field, we use more of a top-down approach, where we take an existing plant cell and remove the parts we don’t need, rather than a bottom-up approach, where we build the cell from scratch.

I am particularly interested in the regulation of gene expression, the process that controls what information encoded in the genes of the cell’s DNA is used to produce molecules such as enzymes. If we can design our own controlled regulatory pathway, we can manipulate enzymes to make them do what we want. At the LBVpam laboratory of Jean Monnet University,  I combine top-down and bottom-up approaches. I delete and add DNA to cell systems, grow the cell and observe what happens.

I apply this knowledge to the biosynthesis and production of fragrant terpenoids, which are molecules used for example in perfumes. I study their biochemistry and biosynthesis.

You joined the SynCellEU community in 2021, can you tell us why?

I wanted to learn more about what was going on in Europe in this area, to get new ideas and make new connections, especially with people working on the top-down approach, but I also thought I could help people in other areas. Most of the tools and knowledge that we are going to use for the bottom-up approach, we will get from the top-down approach. And I think I can help the synthetic cell community by developing and providing some of that knowledge.

Knowledge transfer from academia to industry is also very important to me. The top-down approach I use generates a lot of knowledge that can be applied to make cheaper, better, and sustainable products.

What do you expect SynCellEU to do to bridge the gap between research and technology?

The initiative should highlight the existing opportunities in Europe for researchers. It is much more a matter of making them known than of creating new ones. Ten years ago, I started my first European university – industry collaboration, and being a part of that has enlightened me to a lot of things. There’s so much going on in biotech: calls, bilateral initiatives between governments… It is simply a matter of helping people identify the opportunities available to them. And they can be big.

Useful links

 Jean Monnet University website

Related articles: 

Meet the Community – Claudia Contini

Meet the Community – Michael Booth