Over the weekend of September 26 – 28, Rene Davis (Biological Design PhD, SBHSE) and David Barclay (BME, SBHSE) presented their work on engineering chromatin in mammalian cells at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center‘s Fall 2014 Retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rene Davis presented a talk on “Mammalian Cell Engineering and Chromatin,” which started with an overview of the chromatin engineering projects in the Haynes lab, followed by details of her own new project that investigates the impact of chromatin on genome engineering. David Barclay presented a poster, titled “A synthetic fusion protein for epigenetic control of pancreatic cell function,” which gave an update on his progress with experiments that are a key part of the Synberc “Programmable Organoids” collaboration with MIT and Harvard.
“Karmella Haynes was among scientists and engineers to address national leaders at a recent U.S. Congressional briefing on issues raised by the emerging field of synthetic biology… The rapid advance of synthetic biology has prompted discussions about how to weigh the benefits of the research against potential social and ethical implications, and concerns about safety… Haynes and two colleagues – Steve Evans [Dow AgroSciences] and Jay Keasling [Director of Synberc] – gave presentations on those questions to staff members representing members of Congress, National Science Foundation officials, science journalists and other interested parties.”
Remarks were given by U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell of California. The session was moderated by Pramod Khargonekar, NSF assistant director for Engineering.
Think of the worst thing that the food industry has done with genetically modified foods (GMOs). If you say “sell them at all,” I’d disagree. I enjoy genetically modified foods, and they rely less on pesticides than “organically” grown foods. More on that later.
The worst thing that industry has done regarding GMOs is hide the fact that they are GMOs. There is a strong public belief that there is something toxic about GMOs, and nondisclosure only fuels public suspicions. This is why as a pro-GMO consumer, I am actually happy to hear about Vermont’s recent legislation  that requires any foods that contain GMOs be labeled as such. Now that genetic modification has been asked to come out of the closet, we can all learn the facts about various GMOs, and stop limiting our knowledge to scary catch-phrases and sound bytes like “Frankenfood.”
This brings me back to the previous point about pesticides. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) , ”organically grown” food uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but pesticides derived from natural sources (e.g., biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food. The US Department of Agriculture’s Organic Foods Program  will allow foods to bear their certified organic label even if food pests and diseases have been managed with “application of nonsynthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs.”
In conversations with some acquaintances, it is as if they fantasize that organic farmers are roving the fields each day, gingerly collecting crop-eating bugs from the plants into a jar and releasing them into the forest. At the end of the day, GMO, organic, or local*, no farmer wants to lose crops to enemies such as pests and disease. That farmer is going to use the least expensive and most effective method to poison bugs. That’s just how agriculture works.
The thing that sets the GMO approach apart in the human struggle to protect crops is that it uses DNA biochemistry to make crop-protecting changes within plants. These new traits can be inherited from plant to plant. Some GMOs don’t need any pesticides, synthetic or “botanical,” to keep bugs away. Some are even designed to grow happily in the presence of less fertilizer. This reduces the amount of chemical run-off into the environment. In some cases, GMOs are even made to increase the nutritional value of plants (e.g., golden rice ).
Unfortunately, the food industry has taken defensive actions in response to the Vermont bill. Companies, including Ben & Jerry’s, have started pulling some GMO products from their foods . Fabulous! Now our fat, salt, and cholesterol can be more “organic.”
On the positive side, now that a label will make GMOs highly visible, we can all observe first-hand that GMOs, by virtue of being genetically altered, cause no harm to human health. Through conversations with each other around food, I can talk to more friends about how transferring an anti-browning gene into an apple  is no more “Frankenstein” than slicing up a lemon and squeezing its juices unnaturally onto cut apples. We can distinguish political and economic from scientific arguments. People who oppose GMO and those who support GMO can both shop with confidence. Hopefully, as the public becomes more educated about the science, people will be able to support or oppose specific engineered foods, rather than being forced to accept or reject any and all GMOs across the board.
*Footnote: I support (reasonably priced) local food because it reduces the need to ship produce across the country, not because I believe it is somehow “healthier.” Now, if only I could find local GMOs…
Unfortunately, the disingenuous practice of disguising emotion-driven assaults with a veil of rules and laws is widespread, even amongst esteemed protectors, leaders, and professionals. This is what happened recently when a Tempe Police officer exploited his authority and applied excessive force in apprehending ASU Professor Ersula Ore for jay-walking in an area where the street is currently blocked off and there is no through-traffic on May 20, 2014. I have walked this exact area myself, just North of the Tempe campus. The very likely chance that this could have been me is chilling. View the video of her assault here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQJD2pqhMA4#t=145
After I posted a response to a very lazily-written, one-sided news article on the internet, an instigator from the comment thread emerged from the shadows to send a message via Facebook to inform me that Dr. Ore was simply an “uppity thing” (referring to her as “it”) that got what she deserved. The last time that “uppity” was a crime that warranted police brutality was back in the pre-Civil Rights era, when that “crime” mostly applied to black people. I am not sure how the internet troll managed to find a time machine back in 1950, but welcome to 2014, time-traveler.
Imagine that you are a student in one of my classes. You didn’t study as much as you should have for one of the exams, and wrote a lot of incorrect responses to pretty easy questions. You receive your graded exam not only with a D scrawled in red at the top, but a nice illustration of your head on the body of a mule alongside a quoted Miriam-Webster’s definition of idiot written in the margins, ending with with a phrase such as “drop out and just save your parents or the government some money, you worthless failure.”
Think very carefully before you answer the following question. Would you shrug your shoulders and admit that you really deserved ALL of that for not studying? The D, maybe, but the written abuse along with it? I may not know you personally, but I highly doubt it.
Now, imagine that you approach me regarding this excessive feedback.
Professor: “I am the professor and you are being insolent.”
You: “Are you serious?”
Professor: “Shut up or I’ll slam your grade down to the level of an F.”
Understandably, you go immediately to the Dean with the graded exam in order to address the unprofessional and excessive manner in which you were “evaluated” by me, the professor. I hear about this from the Dean, and then use every logical loop-hole in my syllabus to score your assignments as low as possible so that you fail the course, and then I report you to the Dean for attempting to slander my character (verbal assault of a professor).
Now if things aren’t already bad enough, the Dean’s written response to you looks something like this…
“Administrative authorities have reviewed the unfortunate circumstances surrounding your course failure and have found that the professor involved did not violate protocol and no evidence was found of emotional motivation by the ASU faculty involved.”
Imagine that an account of the incident has spread around campus, and you receive an e-mail from someone you do not know that says that you are just some uppity little college snot that got what you deserved because you didn’t study.
Here’s a question to ponder: what on earth would provoke a trained professional to go to extra lengths to demean a person who he/she is expected to serve the best interests of? Perhaps a deeply-engrained nasty attitude, over-inflated sense of self-importance, or extreme insecurity? Perhaps an inability to see particular people as nothing more than insolent beasts who need to be taught a lesson every once in a while? Thankfully, my character and upbringing place me well above that base level of thinking. Unfortunately, a Tempe police officer who we have entrusted to protect and serve still has some growing up to do.
Getting a grant is extremely exciting, especially for a young PI who has to find support after she has exhausted her start-up funds. In addition to receiving new funding, something else truly amazing happened. My science-communication skills were challenged like they had never been before. I got a very broad audience excited about synthetic biology…something that I believed only scientists and students could ever truly get excited about. The Women and Philanthropy grant application experience was worlds apart from what I am used to…scientifically convincing a panel of scientists that I am a scientist worth her salt who can science, science, science, and science. Instead, I had to identify the real impact that my work would have on my University, community, and the world; how stakeholders who are often taken for granted (the public) would benefit from the work.
I first put pen to paper to materialize my ideas for enabling distributed characterization of bioenginered parts at the 2012 Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (SynBioLEAP), held in Arlington, VA (SynBioLEAP White Paper – “Incentive-Driven Information Sharing for Engineering Biology”). Since then I have been seeking out support and collaborators. After an unsuccessful attempt to get the project funded by the NSF as part of a Career proposal, I tried another route.
Women have an unconventional approach to science that is not always supported by funding agencies with less broad views on how science and research should be approached.
Dr. Peggy Rismiller
I sought out a collaboration with Catherine Seiler, curator of the amazing DNA plasmid repository DNASU, which is just across the street from my building on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. A few brainstorming sessions later the blueprint for “SB.ASU” (Synthetic Biology at ASU) was born. We formed a three-woman team, along with my graduate student Rene Davis, to apply for support from Women and Philanthropy.
The project aims take DNA parts repositories to a new level. We will develop a tool that gathers real experiences from research labs to describe how those parts function in living cells. Bioengineering needs functional data to move forward with rational design of new technologies to build new tools for biomedical and energy needs. We anticipate that the project will reduce the time, cost, and guesswork involved in bioengineering. Read more about the project in ASU Full Circle’s article by Joe Kullman.
1. ASU full Circle. Haynes looks to create a global resource for synthetic biology researchers. http://fullcircle.asu.edu/2014/05/10501/
Congratulations to the following Haynes Lab students who will present posters at the 2014 Spring Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) Retreat on March 24 – 26 at UC Berkeley.
In recognition of her outstanding scientific achievements, Rene Davis, has been awarded $7,000 from the Phoenix Chapter of ARCS Foundation, Inc. for the 2014-2015 academic year. Rene’s “Papadopoulos Scholar” award is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Stephen Papadopoulos from Paradise Valley, AZ. We thank them for their generous support of cutting-edge science and training of a talented future innovator. Rene will present a poster at the annual awards dinner at the Arizona Biltmore, Gold Room on April 25th.
We are recruiting new members for the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, iGEM. Never heard of iGEM before? Visit http://igem.org/About for more information and some examples of award-winning team projects.
What does the ASU iGEM experience look like?
We are seeking undergraduate applicants with a minimum of some coursework that is relevant to synthetic biology (e.g., biology, molecular biology, circuit design, applied math/ calculus, relevant humanities course, graphic design, etc.).
You should definitely consider registering for Dr. Haynes’ course Molecular Synthetic Biology, or at least attend our research article discussions.
DEADLINE EXTENSION: Please complete the application online by Friday, February 21st. Send inquiries to the lead faculty advisor Dr. Haynes. DO NOT send your c.v./ resume/ or transcript at this time. We may ask for these items later in the selection process. We will follow up in early February and hold an in-person, group interview of the finalists in late February/ early March.
If you are not an undergraduate but want to get involved, please e-mail Dr. Karmella Haynes.
Karmella Haynes was selected as The Scientist magazine’s December Scientist to Watch.
“In 2011, at the Fifth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology in Stanford, California, Karmella Haynes arrived at the designated spot to display her poster. Rather than standing idly by, however, she set the board on an easel, whipped out a paintbrush, and turned science into art.”
Read the full article, Turning the Dials, written by Kerry Grens, at The Scientist online.