CCI Q&A with Dr. Rick White

Dr. Rick White, assistant Bioinformatics professor at UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI), specializes in synthetic biology. He says the goal of his work is to, “make COVID-19 the last pandemic and stop the next major health crisis of multidrug-resistant bacteria.” White sat down with CCI’s Communications Office and became the first faculty member featured in its CCI Q&A series.

You are basically a West Coast guy. What do you miss most since moving to Charlotte?

I lived in the Pacific Northwest for over a decade. My travels have taken me from the Pacific Northwest coast (Vancouver, BC), to the desert (Richland, Wa), to the temperate grasslands of the Palouse (Pullman, Wa/Moscow ID). The snow was the hardest part of living in Eastern Washington/Northern Idaho (e.g., Palouse). I don’t miss the snow at all.

Your research is in synthetic biology. In simple terms, what is it and why has it become such a hot field?

Synthetic biology offers the same kind of opportunity that the ‘silicon wafer’ offered in the 1980s, a wave of transformative change to our daily lives from medicine, health, infrastructure, and even data storage. Currently, synthetic biology is a $11.4B industry which will be a trillion dollar industry by 2030. Biological engineering via synthetic means will provide new drugs (e.g., synthetic painkillers made yeast), new materials (e.g., bacterial polymers that are biodegradable plastics), new vaccines (e.g., mRNA vaccines), and data storage (e.g., DNA based).

Why is your work so exciting, for CCI and Charlotte?

Our work focuses on understanding and using synthetic biology via bacteriophages to treat multidrug resistant bacteria. My lab group is clarifying the role of the human virome (the viral part) of the microbiome in order to better understand viruses. Your mouth and gut harbor approximately 100 billion viruses, roughly equivalent to the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Basically, you have a galactic amount of viruses in your mouth and gut. These viruses protect you from disease, are part of training your immune system, and have suspected roles in many diseases. The global virome is estimated to be 10^31 viruses, which is greater than the stars in the observable universe by more than 10 orders of magnitude. This massive number of viruses represents a vast library of genes to engineer, understand, and study for practical applications.

We are building computational and synthetic infrastructure here at UNC Charlotte to train the next generation of computational synthetic scientists needed for this future trillion dollar industry. Our goal is to make Charlotte the synthetic biology hub – The Synthetic Valley of the USA.