Daytrip to Metrovalencia

In order to try to approach synthetic biology to the public, as part of the iGEM Valencia team Human Practices’ schedule, some members from our team got involved in the activities organized at Metrovalencia on Saturday September the 22nd, in order to celebrate the European Car-Free Day. As we did in Cheste, we tried to explain both parents and children what synthetic biology is, by the means of a variety of enjoyable workshops.

Introduce synthetic biology to children, we prepared different activities. First of all, children had to paint each part of DNA molecule. The external pentose-phosphate skeleton and each nitrogen base of the double helix had to be filled in with different colours. Finished this, they had to match the bases’ letters in the drawing by sticking them. Furthermore, they had to take two DNA chains to construct and paint different imaginary animals from the parts they were given, with new functions and capabilities. With that activity we tried to explain them that synthetic biology tries to give new phenotypes to organisms through the design of new combinations of genetic parts.

While the children were having good time learning, we tried to transmit their parents some notions on synthetic biology and an introduction to iGEM and our project –the contest, the design of the project, the genetic circuit…-. Surprisingly, adults showed quite interest on the explanation. We received more questions than we expected during and after the explanation.


In conclusion, our activities had a great success among the public –and the event organization staff. Both children and parents learned a bit about the basis of synthetic biology, where can it lead us in a close future, and the importance of iGEM in the context of this emerging discipline.

La chica mecánica

La ciencia ficción, más allá de las clasificaciones históricas en subgéneros siempre se ha subdivido en dos vertientes de modo clásico: las historias que, sobre una base de verosimilitud (no fidelidad ni realismo) intentan construirse con el único afán de constituir un divertimiento que apele a la imaginación y al sentido de la maravilla (como el Ciclo de Marte de Edgar Rice Burroughs); y aquellas, las más interesantes, que no se cimientan únicamente en estos pilares sino que son auténticas hijas de su tiempo y son un reflejo de las inquietudes de la época o el autor, tanto de los temas tratados directamente en la ficción como los abordados en forma de metáfora dando un interminable listado de obras que invitan a la reflexión de un modo más sutil, abierto, visual e ilustrativo que el enfoque frontal de la disertación pura. Dentro de esta segunda categoría podemos englobar el libro que vamos a reseñar a continuación: La chica mecánica.

El universo de la novela se sitúa en la Tailandia de un hipotético siglo XXII en el cual han desaparecido los combustibles fósiles y la biotecnología es el eje central de toda la tecnología. Las grandes compañías de semillas patentadas buscan desesperadamente nuevos recursos genéticos para poder seguir anticipándose a las plagas que azotan a sus variedades patentadas (las únicas que en teoría quedan); la tracción animal en forma de megalodontes (un trasunto de elefantes modificados genéticamente para ser más grandes y realizar cargas pesadas) es la principal fuente de energía de la industria; uno de los cultos mayoritarios es la Iglesia Grahamita (un remedo mezcla de cristianismo, budismo y fobia a la biotecnología); y en algunos países como Japón carentes de mano de obra se han creado trasuntos de humanos no carentes de reminiscencias de los replicantes de Blade Runner, los Neoseres, diseñados ex profeso hasta el mínimo detalle para una tarea determinada.

A lo largo del libro confluyen varias tramas, siendo las de más peso la historia de Anderson Lake, un agente encubierto de una empresa de semillas que sospecha que el gobierno tailandés está ocultando un banco de semillas de altísimo interés para su empresa; la de Emiko, el neoser; la chica mecánica, que da título al libro y que malvive prostituida en contra de una voluntad casi inexistente a causa de su diseño; y Jaidee y Kanya, una pareja de milicianos al servicio del Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y héroes del pueblo  que buscan eliminar toda intervención extranjera del país. Estas tramas, junto con otras secundarias, se van intercalando, influyendo y convergiendo a lo largo de la novela en lo que lo más destacable es que todos los personajes se hallan en zonas morales grises, todos tienen definidos sus objetivos y con todos es igual de fácil empatizar del mismo modo que se observa que tienen aspectos cuestionables. A pesar de ello, no son personajes excesivamente carismáticos y no evolucionan en demasía (salvo Emiko) a lo largo del libro.

Lo que realmente anima a proseguir con la lectura del libro es el mundo construido: resulta fascinante a casi todos los niveles, a lo que ayuda bastante el conocimiento de la realidad social actual del país, encajando a la perfección con ese segundo tipo de ciencia ficción (el de la metáfora del tiempo en que nace) al que se ha referido al principio del análisis: muchos de nuestros problemas siguen acuciando en el futuro, desconfianza, xenofobia, segregación social, inestabilidad, catástrofes… a los que hay que añadir los problemas derivados del mal uso de la biotecnología, muchos de los cuales están siendo denunciados en la actualidad.

Es en este punto se observan algunos fallos a nivel científico y técnico: el primero de ellos se halla en el uso de tracción animal como principal fuente de energía en la industria. El hecho de que sea la única fuente y no se empleen otras fuentes desarrolladas a lo largo del siglo (todas las renovables y la nuclear por poner algunos ejemplos) resta algo de verosimilitud a la novela. Y el segundo es el que está más relacionado con los malos usos planteados  anteriormente: sobre todo en lo referido a la patentabilidad de las semillas y las resistencias a las superplagas descritas. Ambos problemas están entre los más denunciados por grupos ecologistas a día de hoy y si bien en el primero no nos hallamos ante una media verdad, aunque no se mencione la existencia de proyectos libres de regalías como los llevados a cabo por los gobiernos chino o brasileño, en el segundo hay más que discutir: no se llega a aclarar si las superplagas son resultado de presión selectiva más o menos indeseada o si por el contrario fueron diseñadas en el laboratorio como parte de una estrategia para eliminar competencia (un planteamiento que guarda bastantes semejanzas con mitos leyendas sobre OGM circulantes en la actualidad).

A pesar de ello el libro sigue siendo muy recomendable y disfrutable como lectura ligera y sus fallos técnicos a su vez, pueden ser un indicativo de lo necesario de divulgar ciencia.Imagen

Seminar in Barcelona

During my internship at the Institute of Marine Science (ICM) from the Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC), I had the opportunity to carry out a talk on synthetic biology and our project in iGEM at the weekly meeting of the Department of Marine Biology and Oceanography.

I had an audience composed by biologists and marine scientists from diverse fields of study and years of experience, some of them related to molecular biology.

My talk started with a general introduction to synthetic biology as a science, definition and history. I connected my speech to the importance of outreach activities and worldwide brainstorming campaigns, such as international student contests such as iGEM. I explained what iGEM was all about, and how students get enrolled and develop really original projects and biological parts for building systems.

I finally came to the part where I talked about our team’s heterogeneity of disciplines, and explained the different ideas we came up at the birth of our iGEM team, and how we ended up choosing the one we are now developing. I made a general overview on the idea, the objectives, the construct, the theory, the applications and the future vision.

The interactive time was mainly composed of questions directed to the functioning of the consortium in different situations, and how quorum sensing worked between species. It also drifted to questions about how efficient was the system and how could we optimize it in the future.

Controversial opinions on the application of synthetic ecology, triggered the arrangement of a debate the next month with a larger group of scientists specialized on ecology, at a meeting called the Margalef Hour at the same institute. Here we discussed some recent papers on the origins, function and applications of ecologic-interaction-engineering as a sprouting branch of synthetic biology.Imagen

What do you know about Synthetic Biology?

We have published a quiz in order to know what people know and think about Synthetic Biology. Feel free to answer and spread it🙂.

If you want to answer it, please click the link that corresponds to your age.

Thank you very much!!

16-25 years old: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=nPHy1+s3R8E&chk=1

26 – 40 years old: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=pYXRDjFgbSg

41-100 years old: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=mSIOUxcsJ/c

Español:

16 – 25 años: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=fR9T0HBDiGI

26 – 40 años: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=xh+tdmTMm3c

41-100 años: http://www.e-encuesta.com/answer.do?testid=QlhCGiLJCO0

iGEM Experiences II

My name is Arnau Montagud Aquino, I participated as a student in iGEM 2006 edition (http://www.igem.upv.es/igem06/index.php?title=Main_Page). By the end of February of 2006, a professor that mentored me in my firsts months as a Molecular Biology lab intern bumped into me (yes, literally) in the cafeteria and ask me to go pay him a visit at his office later that day. He told me about a student competition hosted by MIT that involved physics, mathematicians, engineers and biology students. He told me that he came to know the competition through a former collaborator in a protein design project and that this man begged him for help in order to gather biological students. “Those physics are not aware of the mine field they are stepping on…”, he said.

In fact, from the very beginning iGEM got my attention, as, since I started my Biological grade, I looked for courses that merged Mathematics and Biology and, sadden about the scarcity of those, I found iGEM to be a unique opportunity to meet people with other views towards science and, more importantly, to work together on an idea in order to bring it to the real world. From that moment on, I have been involved in all Valencia iGEM participations. It’s been seven years of struggles, building dreams, seeing most of them shattered by the harsh reality and seeing some of them reach the designed ending. I could not choose one of them as my “favorite”. I remember with profound happiness my first participation, but I’m afraid that this is not because the project was more interesting or people build up a tighter team. It was just the first time that I met with such a diverse group of people, the first time that my mind blew up with science, with problems with solutions and with problems with no solutions…

In iGEM 2006 I was mainly doing molecular biology lab work. I was in charge with all the processes that involved the molecular cloning of E. coli, from design to quality check. In following iGEM, 2007, I also took care of clonings and, from that moment on, I step back and let others do the job as I helped people as an advisor. If there’s anything that I would like to improve from the way we do work at Valencia iGEM team is the presence of experienced advisors and graduate students.

My best experience in iGEM is, always, Jamboree’s Sunday morning. It does not matter if one wins ten prizes or none. The satisfaction of the job done, together with the happiness of meeting people that has undergone similar things to you and the (mild) hangover from the previous night celebration mix very well together.

iGEM has taught me one very important lesson: to truly work together within a team. I had worked previously with other students, but this was the first time that our project in real life was going to be evaluated inter pares. Nowadays, I see iGEM as a social experience as well as a scientific and educational one. I have sincerely recommended to all students I have met to participate in iGEM and I will continue doing so.

If I may give an advice: learn, take iGEM seriously, this is not a parade, but, then, do not take it as it was your one and only chance in your life to make something remarkable.

Entrevista al doctor Justo Aznar Lucena

Brevemente mentaremos parte del extenso curriculum del entrevistado, Justo Aznar Lucea, Graduado en Medicina y Cirugía en la Universidad de Valencia en 1960 y doctor por la Universidad de Navarra en 1964, con la calificación de Premio Extraordinario. Ayudante del Servicio de Análisis Clínicos y Hematología de la Clínica Universitaria de la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Navarra así como ayudante de Clases Prácticas de la Cátedra de Bioquímica y Fisiología en la misma institución. Investigador Asociado en el Centro de Investigaciones Citológicas del CSIC en la década de los 60. Ocupará después cargos importantes en el antiguo hospital “La Fe” de Valencia, lugar donde desempeña el cargo de Jefe del Departamento de Biopatología desde 1974 hasta su jubilación en 2006. Es miembro destacado de varias sociedades médicas tanto a nivel nacional como internacional, como la Asociación Española de Biopatología Clínica, la  Mediterranean League against Thromboembolic Disease, The New York Academy of Sciences, entre un extenso listado que puede dar para muchas más entrevistas.

Respecto al tema que nos ocupa, la bioética, desarrolló actividad docente como profesor de Bioética en el Instituto Pontificio para la familia Juan Pablo II en los 90. Posteriormente ocupó el cargo de Director en el “Instituto de Ciencias de la Vida” complementándolo junto al puesto de Director del Observatorio de Bioética y en elMaster Oficial de Bioética en la Universidad Católica de Valencia, ambos en 2005. Pertenecea la Asociación Española de Bioética desde el año 2001.

También le han sido concedidos diversos premios en el área de la bioética,  de los cuales destaca el “Diploma al Mérito Universitario” concedido por la UCV. Es autor devarias publicaciones sobre bioética como “La Vida Humana Naciente. 200 Preguntas y Respuestas”. Ha sido galardonado ennumerosas ocasiones, siendo Premio “III Milenio 2007”, otorgado por la Academia de Ciencias, Tecnología, Educación y Humanidades en el área de Bioética en Valencia, en el año 2007. Con tales referencias y contrastada experiencia durante su larga trayectoria, responde a nuestras preguntas sobre bioética.

 

Siendo usted un profesional con dilatada experiencia en medicina,  ¿cómo llegó a oír hablar del campo de la biología sintética?

Bueno, pues fue al leer en la revista Sciencie el trabajo de Craig Venter el que se describía la síntesis del genoma de la bacteria “Mycoplasma Mycoides”.

En cuanto al campo de la biología sintética, ¿participa usted en la actualidad en alguna línea de investigación relacionada con ella?

Realmente no, desde el Observatorio de Bioética únicamente nos hemos limitado a informes sobre los aspectos éticos, nunca a investigación experimental.

¿Cuál es su opinión respecto al estado del arte de la biología sintética en la actualidad?

Considero que, como todo avance en ciencia, puede dar resultados y aplicaciones muy beneficiosas; pero también puede tener aplicaciones que pueden presentar conflictos éticos. Por ello, habrá que considerar cual va a ser el fin tanto técnico (biológico, biomédico) como ético, al que se destinan estas investigaciones.

Entonces, sabiendo esto, cuáles son los retos que cree usted que debería afrontar esta disciplina y que aspectos debería corregir en cuanto a su facilitación del avance y del desarrollo de aplicaciones

Los retos científicos se centran fundamentalmente en profundizar y entender los mecanismos biológicos y biomoleculares que regulan la vida celular, lo que podría permitir, como así ya ha sido, crear estructuras celulares sintéticas, aunque para ello, será  necesario profundizar en el conocimiento de estos mecanismos complejos. Y respecto a laspecto ético, lo primordial será controlar los fines para los que estas experiencias se destinan.

       Si seguimos en el tema de las aplicaciones de la biología sintética más potenciales, se especula que otros campos puedan ser afectados como biorremediación medioambiental, la industria ¿Algún campo que piense usted más concreto que se pueda ver beneficiado gracias al estudio de la biología sintética?

Realmente, el campo que más conozco es el de la biomedicina. Indudablemente, la biología sintética va a completar el camino para la terapia génica, lo que puede ser útil y muy beneficioso para tratar a pacientes con trastornos moleculares queden lugar a enfermedades de tipo hereditario o cromosómico. En este sentido, va a suponer claramente un avance realmente beneficioso,  de entre todos los que veremos este siglo. Al margen del campo biomédico también podrá aplicarse para producir combustibles limpios, productos alimentarios, trasformación de hidrocarburos o fármacos, entre otros.

Saliéndonos un poco ya de su campo de biomedicina, en cuanto a aplicaciones industriales de lo que más se habla ahora de uso más recurrente y prometedor es la producción de biocombustibles que no comprometan la disponibilidad de alimentos, hablando así del etanol, el hidrógeno, otros alcoholes… ¿cree que de verdad podríamos utilizar bacterias para este fin? Y, a partir de esto, ¿cuál cree usted que tiene más visos de convertirse en un sustituto de combustibles fósiles?

No tengo una idea concreta, ya que no es mi campo de experimentación , aunque por lo que he leído y ojeado, considero que es un campo muy prometedor, pero que todavía se halla en fases muy tempranas e incipientes. Hay que pensar que a día de hoy la sustitución de combustibles fósiles por biocombustibles obtenidos por biotecnología, en vistas de las cifras de producción actual, que estimo alrededor de menos de un 10%, se antoja escasa e insuficiente. Desde el punto de vista ético, lo que sí considero importante es evitar que el uso de recursos alimentarios para producción de biocombustibles no conduzca a trasformar las explotaciones  agrarias desviando recursos alimentarios para fines comerciales o energéticos inadecuados. Debería mantenerse siempre un equilibrio.

Ya también hablando un poco de las aplicaciones medioambientales, no deja de ser paradójico a los ojos del público porque hay un miedo en la opinión pública de un posible escape, un descontrol del producto de un grupo de científicos irresponsables que, según se suele decir, “juegan a ser Dios”. ¿cree que esta situación se podría dar?

No considero que en ningún momento jueguen a ser Dios: juegan a ser científicos honestos que realizan un trabajo práctico que puede ser útil para la humanidad. Ser Dios es algo muy distinto. En ese sentido, creo que siempre que hay un avance hay riesgos inherentes a la propia tecnología. El objetivo se halla entonces en condicionar los experimentos y el desarrollo tecnológico para minimizar los riesgos en la mayor medida posible, pero nunca se pueden eliminar, esto es inevitable. Considero que es positivo que la ciencia avance y no se detenga por miedo injustificado a las posibles consecuencias negativas que pudiera tener, pero siempre regulando el avance bajo el prisma ético.

Si hubiera algún escape o se cumpliera alguno de estos riesgos, ¿qué consecuencias cree que podría acarrear este hecho?

No soy experto en estas materias, aunque a mi juicio, como ciudadano de a pie, considero que son difíciles de prever y pensar cuáles van a ser las consecuencias. Lo que hay que hacer es tratar de poner los medios necesarios para que los riesgos sean mínimos, pero lo que si estimo importante es que esos riesgos, que siempre existen, no frenen el desarrollo de una investigación que puede tener unos efectos beneficiosos para mucha gente. Considero que hay que actuar con cierta generosidad en cuanto a la asunción del riesgo, pero siempre equilibrándolo con la valoración ética del mismo.

Entonces queda respondida la siguiente pregunta en la que le íbamos a preguntar si podrían los riesgos superar al beneficio actual.

Creo que siempre tiene que haber desde el punto de vista ético una proporcionalidad entre riesgos y beneficios. Si el riesgo asumido es superior al beneficio potencial, la práctica o el experimento son inasumibles desde el punto de vista ético; sin embargo si el riesgo es menor que este beneficio potencial, se debe estudiar esa posibilidad indudablemente. Este principio ético acompaña a todas las prácticas humanas.

Y ahora, sea como fuere el impacto sociopolítico de las aplicaciones puede ser muy profundo. Hay analistas como Juan Enríquez o Jeremy Rifkin queconsideran que el presente siglo será el que presencie en las industrias de las ciencias biológicas una explosión que se podría asemejar a las Revoluciones Industriales ya pasadas. ¿Cree usted que es así?

Creo que en este siglo vamos a ver avances realmente espectaculares en este terreno ,pues los avances informáticos, todos los avances derivados de la biología molecular, el control de la biología del desarrollo, la modificación de tipos celulares u organismos enteros van a revolucionar nuestra vida en muchos sentidos. Dentro de la medicina, concretamente el de la medicina regenerativa y la ingeniería tisular, creo que se van a dar los mayores avances terapéuticos de este siglo. Parece que efectivamente va a tener un impacto similar al que tuvo la revolución industrial; pero estos avances son realmente impredecibles. Por ejemplo, en la actualidad se están realizando ensayos de construcción de corazones artificiales: se parte de un corazón de rata, se de celulariza mediante perfusión de detergentes y enzimas, dejando únicamente un scaffold protéico que se puede rellenar con células del propio paciente, de modo que el corazón obtenido es totalmente inmunocompatible con el del paciente, además de ser un corazón de mejor calidad que el de un donante. Sin embargo, se nos plantea el debate de que muchos de estos avances tal vez no sean accesibles a todos los grupos de  población y pueda dar lugar a diferencias sociales en función de la capacidad de acceder a estos recursos. La biología sintética puede tener efectos similares, sólo que dichos avances es posible que no sean accesibles a todos los estratos de la población, lo que podría dar lugar a diferencias sociales en función de la capacidad que se tenga de acceder a estos recursos. De modo análogo la biología sintética puede tener efectos similares, sólo que en este caso las diferencias se darían principalmente entre naciones y no entre individuos, acrecentando posibles diferencias entre países, en tanto que los nuevos avances sean o no accesibles a algunos de ellos, por lo que hay que asegurar que estas tecnologías no aumentan las diferencias actualmente existentes.

 Sí, que se reparta la ayuda, a todo el mundo

O que estos avances desarrollados en estos campos le sean accesibles a todo el mundo a través de una justicia distributiva social universal correcta.

¿Y cree que la sociedad está preparada para el caso de que se diera esta revolución?

Considero que la sociedad está preparada para recibir todos los avances que se le vayan presentando, siempre y cuando se le presenten bien, y se le informe de modo que tengan un conocimiento suficiente y veraz de dichos avances para que, con libertad, pueda decidir sus acciones. La información sobre los avances es el aspecto clave. Debe de ser correcta y asumible para no entendidos. Se puede plantear una analogía con muchos de los problemas económicos de la actualidad derivados de cláusulas abusivas de los contratos escondidas en la letra pequeña. Hay que proporcionar la suficiente información para que después, tanto los individuos como la sociedad y los grupos que la componen puedan ejercitar su libertad con conocimiento. Una buena capacidad de transmisión de los conocimientos es clave.

Observamos que se pueden dar controversias sociales de la biología sintética que recuerdan a las que se dieron ya con la investigación con células troncales, o las GMO. Y hay opiniones muy polarizadas, desde que se considere como una amoralidad hasta que se considere ya desde un punto de vista transhumanista que dice que estas prácticas son primordiales para el desarrollo social. ¿En cuanto a esto, cuál es su opinión?

Como he dicho antes, la información es lo más importante. Por ejemplo, respecto al tema de las investigaciones en células troncales, el juicio que su uso merezca dependerá en gran parte de la información que se proporciona. Por ejemplo, si a la gente se le transmite que con células madre embrionarias se pueden curar enfermedades, lo aceptará y lo asumirá éticamente; sin embargo, si les transmites los datos reales de los ensayos de células troncales y les dices que sólo hay 3 realizados con células embrionarias frente a los más de 3000 llevados a cabo con células troncales adultas, a lo mejor se les podría aclarar qué es relevante o no a nivel de investigación y qué es ético. Al final todo es una responsabilidad de los científicos que manejan y desarrollan la tecnología para que la gente pueda decidir. Si por ejemplo: se le dice a la gente que se están pudiendo curar con células madre adultas lesiones de médula espinal en una clínica en Rio de Janeiro, la gente se gastará sus ahorros debido a la búsqueda de algo a lo que aferrarse y tener esperanza. A nivel industrial ocurre lo mismo. Es necesaria una transmisión de información  veraz y carente de sesgos ideológicos, únicamente basada en la realidad científica para poder equilibrar y valorar riesgos y beneficios.

 

 

Ahora mismo, claro, al estar desarrollándose todo esto de la biología sintética vemos que se puede llegar a dar una patentabilidad de seres vivos o los productos que se deriven de ellos. ¿Qué opina de que se diera una patente hacia un ser vivo o hacia un producto que se derivara de él?

Hace relativamente poco, un alto organismo jurídico europeo denegó o consideró negativa la posibilidad de conceder patentes para experimentos que requieran utilizar células embrionarias humanas, porque presuponen la destrucción de seres humanos. En este sentido, estimo que será patentable todo lo que redunde en beneficio de los seres humanos y que no se apoye en experiencias que presenten reprobaciones éticas.  No hay que tener miedo a la ciencia, si ésta parte de una ética adecuada y mediante técnicas contrastadas.

             Ya para finalizar, en cuanto a concursos científicos como puedan ser en el que estamos participando, el iGEM, ¿qué opina usted? ¿cree que son una buena forma de que los estudiantes nos interesemos por estos campos y que tengamos más afán de continuar en ellos y avanzar más la investigación?

A mi me parece que estimular a los jóvenes estudiantes, con proyectos que sean capaces de desarrollar inquietudes y ánimo investigador, es fundamental. Ciertamente la investigación es, a mi juicio, la máxima expresión de la inteligencia humana y una gran aventura para poder profundizar en nuestra propia naturaleza. Trabajar en investigaciones que reporten objetivos y bienes a la sociedad es algo que en sí mismo, se puede catalogar como muy positivo, lo que hace de esto un hecho fascinante. Abrir vías para que los jóvenes se dediquen a la investigación, facilitar el acceso a centros de nivel técnico y estimular su trabajo investigador, es espléndido. Todo lo que sea  facilitar la realidad magnífica de la investigación es estupendo. Pienso, que no hay alternativa mejor para un individuo humano que trabajar e investigar en el conocimiento de cosas que aporten beneficio a sus congéneres, esto es investigación. Como he repetido en alguna ocasión en distintos foros, todo el trabajo que se desarrolle en este terreno, siempre y cuando se atenga a la verdad, sin lugar para el engaño o manipulación es fantástico. Y si esto se consigue a través de concursos como el iGEM me parece fenomenal.

 

Interview with Justo Aznar Lucena M.D.

We will briefly mention part of the long curriculum of the interviewee, justo Aznar Lucea, Graduate in  Medicine and Surgery in the University of Valencia in 1960 and Doctor by the University of Navarra in Clinical Analysis and Hematology in 1964, with the grade of Award with Special DistinctionAssistant of the Service of Clinical Analysis and Hematology of the Universitary Clinic of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Navarra and helper of Practical Training  of the Chair of Biochemistry and physiology of the same institution. Research Associate in the Centre of Cytological Researches of the CSIC in the 60’s. Afterwards, he held important posts in the old hospital “La Fe” of Valencia, place where he  had the post of Head of the Biopathology Department between 1974 and 2006 (his retirement year). He is a distinguished member of some medical societies at national and international level, as the Spanish Society of Clinical Biopatology, the Mediterranean League against Thromboembolic Disease, The New York Academy of Sciences, between a wide list that can result in a lot more interviews.

 

In relation of bioethics, the subject which we are speaking about, he’s worked as teacher of Bioethics at the Papal Institute for the family John Paul II in the 90’s. Later, he got the post of  Manager in the Life Sciences Institute complementing it with the post of Director of the Bioethics Observatory and of the Oficial Master of Bioethics in the UCV, both in 2005. He belongs to the Spanish Society of Bioethics since 2001.

 

Furthermore he has been awarded with different prizes in the area of bioethics, of which the University Diploma Merit, given by UCV, emphasizes. He is author of different publications about bioethics as “Nascent human life. 200 Questions and Answers”. He has been awarded numerous times, being Price “III Millennium 2007”, given by the Academy of Sciences, Technology, Education and Humanities in the Bioethics area of Valencia in 2007. With such references and his checked experience during his long trajectory, he answers our questions about bioethics.

 

As you are a professional with extensive medical experience, how have you known about the area of synthetic biology?

Well, it was when I read, at the journal Science, the study of Craig Venter in which the synthesis of the genome of the bacterium “Mycoplasma micoides” was described.

 

As regards to the synthetic biology area, are you currently participating in some line of investigation related to it?

Really not, from the Bioethics Observatory we have only confined ourselves to do reports about ethical aspects; we have never done experimental research.

 

What do you think about the state of the art of synthetic biology nowadays?

I consider that, as all advances in sciences, it can have very beneficial results and applications;  however, it can result in applications which can present ethical conflicts. Because of that, we have to consider the technical (biological, biomedical) and the ethical aim to what these researches are intended for.

 

Well, knowing that, what are the challenges that you think that this discipline should tackle and what aspects it should correct referent to make easier its advance and applications development?

Scientific challenges are basically focused on studying in depth and understanding the biological and biomolecular mechanisms which control cellular life; all that could allow, as it has occurred, to create synthetic cellular structures, though for that would be necessary to study in depth the knowledge about these complex mechanisms. And, in relation to the ethical aspect, the priority will be to control the aims for what these experiences are destined.

 

Following the subject about the more potential applications of synthetic biology, it is speculated that other areas could be affected, as environmental bioremedy, industry… There is any area that you think that could be benefited thanks to the synthetic biology studies?

Actually, the area that I know more about is biomedicine. Undoubtedly, synthetic biology will complete the way to gene therapy, due to it could be useful and very beneficial to treat patients with molecular disorders which result in hereditary or chromosomal diseases. In that sense, it will clearly mean a really beneficial advance, among all that we will see that century. Regardless of biomedical area synthetic biology will be able to be applied for the production of clean fuel, food products, hydrocarbon or medicines transformation, among others.

 

Leaving a little your area, as regards industrial applications what is actually more mentioned about a more recurrent and promising use is the production of biofuels that doesn’t affect food supply; like ethanol, hydrogen, other alcohols… Do you think that we really could use bacterium to this purpose? And from that, what application do you think that has more future to turn into a substitute of fossil fuel?

I don’t have an specific idea because this is not my experimentation area, though because of what I have read and stared at, I consider that is a promising area, but it is still in very early and incipient phases. We have to know that, currently, the replacement of fossil fuel by biofuel obtained thank to biotechnology, looking at the number of current production, which I estimate around less of a 10%, gives the feeling that is slim and insufficient. From the ethical point of view, what I surely consider important is to avoid that the use of food resources to biofuel production doesn’t lead to transform farms, deflecting food resources to inadequate commercial or energetic aims. It should be always kept balanced.

 

Speaking a little about environmental applications, it doesn’t stop being paradoxical to public eyes because there is a fear in the public opinion of a possible leak, a lack of control of the product of a group of irresponsible scientists that, as it is normally said, “playing  God”. Do you think that this situation could occur?

I don’t think they’re playing God at all: they’re playing to be honest scientist who realize a practical work which can be useful to the humanity. Being God is something very different. On this side, I believe there are always inherent risks to the same technology in every advance. Then, the objective is to condition the experiments and the technological development to minimize the risks as far as possible, but it is never possible to rule out them, risks are inevitable. I consider that is positive science advances and not stops because of the unjustified fear to the negative consequences that it could have, but always regulating the advance under ethics.

 

If there was a leak or some of these risks came true, what consequences do you think that fact could carry?

I’m not an expert in these areas, but in my opinion, as a man in the street, I consider that to predict and think about the possible consequences it’s difficult. What we have to do it’s to try to provide the means to minimize the risks, but what I yes estimate important is that these risks, that always exist, don’t stop the development of a research that can have beneficial effects for a lot of people. I think that we have to take the risk, always counterbalancing it with its ethic assessment.

 

So the next question is now answered because it would be if the risks could overcome the current benefit.

I think there has to be always, from the ethical point of view, proportionality between risks and benefits. If the assumed risk is higher than the potential benefits, the practice    or the experiment are unacceptable from the ethical point of view; however is the risk is minor that the potential benefit, the possibility should be studied, undoubtedly. This ethical principle goes with all human practices.

 

Nowadays, in any case, the socio-political impact of the applications can be very deep. There are analysts as Juan Enríquez or Jeremy Rifkin that consider that the present century will be the one that attends on the industries of biological sciences, an explosion comparable to previous Industrial Revolutions. Do you think it is like that?

I think in this century we will see really spectacular advances in the area, because the computer advances, all advances derived from molecular biology, the control of the development biology, the modification of cellular types or whole organisms will revolutionize our life in a lot of senses. In the medical area, specifically in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, I think there would be the major therapeutic advances of this century. It seems that indeed, it will have a similar impact to the one that the Industrial Revolution had; but these advances are really unpredictable. E. g., at present, there have been realizing assays of creating artificial hearts: it starts from a rat’s heart, we decellularize by perfusion of detergents and enzymes, leaving only a proteic scaffold that can be refilled with cells of the own patient, so they obtained heart is totally inmunocompatible with the patient, as well as being a heart of better quality than a donated heart. Nevertheless, there is the debate about that all these advances could be not accessible to all people and could result in social differences in function of the purchasing power of people. Synthetic biology can have similar effects, except that it possible to these advances not to arrive to all  people, which could result in social differences in function of the capacity they have to access to these resources. By the same token, synthetic biology can have similar effects, but in this case the differences would be mainly between nations and not between individuals, increasing possible differences between nations,  in so far as the new advances are or not affordable to some countries. Because of that we should guarantee that these technologies don’t increase the current differences.

 

Yes, the assistance shared to all the people in the world.

Or, that these advances developed in these areas are affordable to all people through a correct universal distributive social equity.

 

And, do you think society is prepared in the event of this revolution?

I consider society is prepared to receive all the advances presented, provided they are well presented, and society is informed so that they have a true and enough knowledge about these advances so, they could decide, with freedom, their acts. The information about advances is the key aspect. It has to be complete and acceptable for not experts. We could raise an analogy with a lot of the current economic problems derived by the unfair clauses of the contracts hide in the small print. Enough information should be given so after, so individuals, society and the groups which make up it could exercise their freedom with knowledge. A wide ability of transmission of knowledge is the key.

 

We notice there can be social controversies about synthetic biology that remind what happened at research with stem cells or GMO. There are very polarized opinions, from considering it as amorality until considering it since a transhumanist point of view which tell that these practices are essential to social development. What do you think about that?

As I have said before, information is the most important thing. For example, in relation to the subject about stem cells research, the judgment its use deserve will depend, for the major part, on the given information. For example, if we transmit that with embryonic stem cells we can cure illnesses, people will accept and assume it ethically; still if you transmit real data about the assays with stem cells and you tell them that there are only three realized with embrionary cells in contrast to more than three hundred realized with adult stem cells, maybe we can clarify them what is relevant or not on a level with research and what is ethical. At the end of all it is a responsibility of scientist who manage and develop the technology so people can decide. If, for example, it is said to people that they can cure damages in spinal cords with adult mother cells in a Rio de Janeiro clinic, people would spend their saving due to the research for something to cling and to have a hope. At industrial level it occurs at the same. It is necessary truthful information without ideological slants, only based on scientific reality to be able to balance and value risks and benefits.

 

Nowadays, the area of synthetic biology is developing, so we notice there could be a patentability of living creatures or products derived from them. ¿What do you think about giving patents of living being or product derived from them?

There’s a little time, a high legal body denied or considered negative the possibility to grant patents for experiments which require using embrionary human cells, because it means human beings destruction. In this sense, I consider all what benefit human beings and it’s not based on experiences which present ethic reprobation will be patentable. We shouldn’t be scare of science if it starts from appropriate ethic and by checked techniques.

 

And now, to finish, as regards scientific competitions as the one we are participating in, iGEM, what do you think about? Do you think they are a good way to interest students in these areas and students have more eagerness to continue and do more scientific advances on this area?

In my view stimulating young student with projects that can develop interest and research spirits, is fundamental. Certainly research is, in my opinion, the maxim expression of human intelligence and a great adventure to be able to go more deeply into our own nature. Working on researches that bring objectives and goods to society is something that, by itself, could be catalogued as very positive, what makes it as a fascinating fact. To open the ways by where youths can work on research, to facilitate their access to centers of technique level and to stimulate their research work, is magnificent. Whatever is to facilitate the splendid reality of researching is marvelous. I think there is no better option for an individual than working and investigate on the knowledge of different things that carry benefits for their fellows, that’s research, investigation. As I have repeated at some occasion on different forums, all the work developed on this area, as long as it confines itself to the truth, without tricks or manipulation, is fantastic. And if that is achieved by competitions as iGEM, I think it’s wonderful.

iGEM experiences

Hello everybody!  I’m Meritxell Notari and I’m 25 (almost 26), I’m a Biology graduate by the Universitat de València, later specialized in gentics. I took part on the 2008 iGEM with a project called “The hot yeast Project”  (http://2008.igem.org/Team:Valencia) and I’m gonna telll you which has been my experience with synthetic biology till the present day:

My adventure at iGEM began during the 2007/2008 academic course during a molecular genetics lesson, where a guy called Arnau, introduced us a new concept in biology called sythetic biology, focusing particularly on iGEM . After this, the first thing I thought was: “How wierd! isn’t it? It would be nice to take part on this project!”. During that academic course, 2007/2008, I was part of the Universitat de València’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department Universitat de València, as an intern student, with professor Mercè Pamblanco. I told her my intentions to get into this world,  her answer was unsurpassable and she also helped me in everything she could: contacting advisors, telling when the synthetic biology courses and days took place… from then on everything was rolling on till the day I was told I was part of the Valencia-iGEM’08 Team!

The project with we took part was called “The hot yeast Project”, in which we charaterized a yeast which was able to keep its temperature and, as a consequence, was able to sustain the culture without any external energy input (electricity).We characterized different yeast strains with UCP1 protein (positive control, negative and two strians with different delections) supplied by Eduardo Rial from CIB-CISC. In fact, these strains were able to increase their culture media temperature. Besides, we characterized their growing kinetics and the temperature increasing results adjust with each stran own growing kinetics. This means, the bigger is the time the yeast spends in completing exponential growing phase, longer they spend to increase the medium temperature. Both controls, postitve and negative don’t increase their temperature at all, but they suffer a progressive decreasing of the temperature, as expected according to Newton’s cooling law. These results are on the paper published on  New Biotechonology (Vol. 26, N. 6, December 2009) titled: “Yeast cultures with UCP1 uncoupling activity as a heating device” .

My main work was working at the wet lab, although we were very few people on it, everyboy did all the tasks requiered to reach the project’s objectives.

It was a magnificent summer (with part of spring and autum) that I wouldn’t change for anything at all  and I’d repeat again if I had the chance. All the memories I keep, the best (like the NYC visit with my fellows, dinners, flats, the expected results…) the good ones (watching the job rewarded) and the not-so-good (argument that happen even in the best  of the families) are unique and unrepeatible -and you also can learn from them for your normal days.

It’s true that there are always things that you would change, but I don’t see it as a negative feature but as little details you can change and improve, as some kind of learning.

Whe iGEM is over, when you’re in Boston, yoy think “Guys it’s over! Carpe diem!”. You always keep memories, photos with you fellows, phone numbers you never erase… and all this stuff is coomo to the few lucky ones who have the chance to take part on iGEM. After my participation, I’ve been linked to the following editions: synthetic biology days, different projects I’ve the pleasure to share with different iGEM’08 team members, speaks to explain the project… it’s a feeling you can’t get rid of easily and I don’t want to get rid of.

Despite of the current situation, it’s always a bonus having some synthetic biology rudiements and having taking part on iGEM because, despite scientific world is pretty big, synthetic isn’t. Thanks to iGEM project I took part for a time on the BioModularH2  project, which encouraged me to retake my studies in the genetics field and be able to enrole in certain projects in which, before my iGEM time, I would have not been capable to enrole in

Because of all this, it’s an eperience I wouldn’t change for anything and I strongly recomend to all the studients who want, to take part and to get into synthetic biology. FOr me, make my living from science is a dream and this is a very good bengining to know if you can really live your dream and not daydreaming your life.

Meritxell Notari

 Valencia-iGEM 2008 Team  Member

An evening at Cheste

The iGEM competition demands a part of security or human practices. Along previous years, each team has been improving and increasing this part of the competition having arrived to realize surprising achievements.

The iGEM Valencia 2012 team considered interesting to do some activities focused on the youngest children. The purpose of these activities was to make children know something about the DNA or to amplify their knowledge about it and the synthetic biology. We chose the youngest people because it is a way to relay them the curiosity about this field, managing to make them learn new concepts and ideas at the same time.

Depending on the age of each child, there were arisen different activities and games.

To the youngest, we considered interesting to explain them what was DNA and why all living creatures have it. Once children listened the explanation with photos (to make it easier), we started playing “Paint it!” That game consisted in painting the complementary bases in a giant DNA molecule.

In the next game, we painted them a complementary base in their face so they had to find someone with their complementary base.

To children between 6 and 9, we decided to ask them what they know about DNA, and, depending on their level, we would explain them more about this subject or clarify what they knew. We taught them that all living creatures have DNA and that DNA could be modified.

The first game was with animal cut-outs. Each child had to combine different animals obtaining different combinations. After that, we put children in two lines; one was the line with DNA and the other the line without DNA. Then we showed photos and the line who didn’t match with the photo had to catch the one which matched.

To conclude, the last activities were planned to children within 10 and 13. As always, first of all, we asked them if they knew something about DNA and if they knew something related to synthetic biology. Once children had answered, we explained them correctly the incorrect answers; moreover, we taught them on what consist synthetic biology and why it is important.

For their game, we separate the children in two groups. Each child had a complementary base do DNA painted in his face. Near each group there were water balloons. When the game started the children had to wet their complementary base so the winner was the child who had wet more his complementary base.

The aim of these activities was to learn to transmit our knowledge easily to children while they (and some of their parents) pass a good time learning and playing.