Synthetic Biology Dispels Fairytales

Synthetic Biology Dispels Fairytales

The Institute of the Americas concluded its 5th Summer Camp on Science and Innovation at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in July 2014. The 2014 group of 40 students was the largest since the beginning of the camp.  High school students attended from twelve countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and the U.S. The students, all in high school and Spanish-speakers, came from a variety of backgrounds but had a common goal – to pursue academic studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

The success of the camp was based on a well-balanced combination of lectures, hands-on team projects, lab time, field visits, guest speakers and the dormitory experience at UCSD’s Eleanor Roosevelt College.

Pivotal to this year’s success was our new collaboration with Dr. Justin Pahara (Synbiota Inc.) and Dr. Wendy Ochoa (MoBio). Dr. Pahara flew from Canada to lead a three-day crash course on hands-on genetic engineering.

Dr. Pahara’s and Dr. Ochoa’s execution of the class was phenomenal. Everything was strategically planned out and, with Dr. Ochoa’s help, the workshop was run entirely in Spanish.

“It was exciting to see a synthetic biology workshop such as this being run in Spanish! It was the first time I’ve done intense science like this with realtime translation – very cool and extra engaging,” says Dr. Pahara.

The first day of the three-part session started with an introduction to synthetic biology, which was then followed up by an extensive discussion of the ethics of bioengineering.

Is genetic engineering good or bad? What are the possibilities of genetic engineering and what can you actually do with it?  The students were immediately engaged with Dr. Pahara’s enthusiasm and passion for teaching. There were a lot of questions, the students were, however, very anxious to get to the exciting part – actually doing science.

Dr. Pahara explained that they were going to engineer E. coli bacteria to be colourful (red, blue, yellow for single colours, as well as combinations of colours such as or-ange, green, and purple), and they also discussed how colour is formed in the living organism. The students were alternatively ecstatic and impatient because they could not wait to actually start the activity.

Before any DNA assembly could take place the students had to design the DNA they wanted to build using an open source tool called GENtle.  Students loaded the DNA parts that are included in the Rainbow Factory Kit into GENtle and created their DNA circuit using a simple pick-and-place user interface. There, they were able to see the actual DNA code that their plasmid would be composed of. After much consideration and discussion, the students assembled their DNA design using real DNA from the kit. DNA was assembled one block at a time on magnetic beads using a simple hands-on method until they had as-sembled their full DNA design. Next, they separated their DNA from the beads and had pure DNA.

Finally, they put their DNA into E. coli bacteria using a process called transformation. After mixing their DNA with bacterial cells, the group completed a “heatshock” which caused the DNA to enter the cells. Then, they incubated the cells and put them onto agar plates (like jello) and incubated the plates overnight. The next day we saw the colourful bacteria growing on the plates. Success!
Dr. Pahara’s activity was the highlight of the camp. The students were doing real-life science with trial and error, and in a matter of just three days they were able to see their living results – something that none of them had done before.

The students were beaming with happiness when they saw their results. The impact it had on the students became even more apparent when Dr. Pahara’s activity won 1st place in the students’ evaluation bumping, for the first year ever, an activity at a very well-known theme park in California to 2nd place.

Denisse A. Fernandez is the Director of the Summer Science Program for the Institute  of the Americas a non-profit organization on the University of California San Diego, campus in La Jolla, CA.

Institute of the Americas Signs Agreement with Beijing Law Firm to Promote China-Latin America Business Expansion

BEIJING – The Institute of the Americas and DeHeng Law Offices of Beijing have signed a collaborative agreement to assist Chinese businesses in launching and expanding business operations in Latin America.

DeHeng Law Offices is one of the largest law firms in China, with 1,500 attorneys on staff.  The firm, which has 23 offices in mainland China, as well as offices in New York, Seattle, Orlando, Brussels, Paris, Munich, Frankfurt, The Hague, Dubai, Sao Paulo, Australia, New Delhi, Seoul and Japan, is also focusing on assisting clients seeking to do business in Latin America.

The agreement between the Institute of the Americas and DeHeng Law Offices was signed in Beijing on July 17, when the two organizations held a seminar in collaboration with the China Overseas Development Association titled, “Investments in Latin America: Focusing on Mexico’s Energy Reform.”

Hu Weiping, secretary general of the China Industrial Overseas Development and Planning Association, spoke during a July 17 seminar in Beijing about efforts to encourage outbound investment to Latin America.The conference was attended by more than 100 business executives, including representatives of the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), the China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corp., Sany Heavy Energy Machinery Co., China Harbour Engineering Co., COSCO International Holdings Limited, SinoSure and the Bank of China.

The July 17 seminar took place on the day that Mexico’s Senate voted to approve secondary legislation to implement energy reforms.  The seminar also coincided with President Xi Jinping’s trip to Brazil, where he attended a BRICS summit and signed a host of economic agreements between China and Brazil.

Mexican Ambassador to China Julian Ventura gave a keynote speech in which he outlined key provisions in Mexico’s energy reforms, saying there are new possibilities for an “action-oriented agenda between China and Mexico.”

Ambassador Ventura told the audience that Mexico’s “oil production declined by 25 percent over the last decade. This situation is not sustainable in the long term and is hampering our progress,” he said.  “A common challenge that all countries face is taking the necessary steps to ensure the well-being of our citizens.  Energy has to be a driver and not an obstacle in any economy.”

Wu Guoping, a Latin America expert at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, called Mexico’s energy reform “revolutionary because of the impact it will have on Mexico’s economy and its society.”

He said Mexico’s energy reform will have a huge impact on the country’s economy, creating 2.5 million jobs by 2025.

Mexican Ambassador to China Julian Ventura (left) speaks with Hu Weiping (right), secretary general of the China Industrial Overseas Development and Planning Association at a July 17 seminar in Beijing on Mexico’s energy reforms as Harrison Jia (second from left) of DeHeng Law Offices and Luis Vera (third from left) of Vera & Asociados look on.“Energy reform is revolutionary but it also faces challenges,” Wu said, “because nationalism is very strong in Mexico. The reform faces potential challenges from labor unions that have benefitted from long-standing protections in the energy sector.”

Mexican attorney Luis Vera told the audience that Mexico is looking beyond traditional energy sources to shale oil and gas and is planning major exploration projects in northern states such as Chihuahua. “Private investors, including Chinese firms, are buying land,” said Vera, who is the founding partner of Mexico City-based Vera & Asociados.  “That is where the big investment is going to be.”

Vera also emphasized the huge potential in renewable energy in Mexico over the next two decades.  “By 2030, Mexico must get 35 percent of all its energy from renewables,” he said.  “In wind energy, all of the technology comes from China. We have created the market and we are expecting you to be there,” he said.

Francisco Martinez Boluda, a partner in the Beijing office of the Uria Menendez law firm, said, “We are witnessing a change in the relationship between China and Mexico which can be complementary. We think that in 2015, things are going to start to move.”

Harrison Jia, a partner in DeHeng Law Offices, outlined labor laws and work rules in several Latin American countries that set standards for wages, hosing and medical coverage. He told the audience, “Mexico is more flexible than Brazil” in its labor requirements for foreign companies.

Jia attended a two-week Chinese Executive Program at the Institute of the Americas in May 2014 which included a week-long trip to Mexico City where he and other participants in the program met with top Mexican government officials and business executives.

“We want to introduce Mexico so more Chinese companies can go there,” he said.