Assistant professor Ophelia Venturelli is the 2023 recipient of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Synthetic Biology Young Innovator Award, which recognizes an outstanding early career investigator. Venturelli is being recognized for her pioneering and interdisciplinary research toward programming the spatiotemporal behaviors of microbiomes. In addition to addressing grand scientific challenges facing human society in human health, environment, and agriculture, she is committed to open science as well as fostering a more diverse and supportive community.
ACS talked with Venturelli about her career, challenges in the field, and what’s next for the Venturelli Lab. When asked about directions her work will take moving forward, Venturelli said:
For the past 6 years, we have primarily focused on quantitatively analyzing and predicting the behaviors of microbiomes in vitro. We are excited to translate our model-designed microbiome interventions to control host phenotypes. Over the next 5 years, we hope to translate our microbiome interventions to the clinic and potentially to the field for agricultural applications. Towards these goals, we are developing high-throughput ex-vivo platforms systems to quantitatively analyze and predict the interplay of host-microbe, microbe-microbe, and microbe-environment interactions shaping microbiome behaviors. We also aim to develop novel computational models that combine physics and machine learning to balance model interpretability and flexibility for designing, quantitatively analyzing and predicting microbiomes across space and time. Finally, we are excited to engineer living bacteria to sense key environmental stimuli and dynamically control novel pathways to impact the environment. These engineered bacteria will be embedded into designed microbiomes to provide real-time information about key environmental states and perform specific functions to further enhance the beneficial properties of the designed microbiomes. Finally, certain environments have a high degree of spatial heterogeneity. Therefore, we aim to understand and engineer microbiome functions in spatially structured environments and potentially exploit these spatial parameters for control of system behaviors.