DNA Training at Galen University

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-11h47m43s161We got news of an exciting training being done at Galen University; so we stopped by to see. It turns out that they were just finishing a three day course never before offered in Belize; teaching students to extract DNA and to identify organisms based on their genetic make-up. This kind of training is important in developmental areas such as forensics and the agricultural sector, as well as identification of new species; areas of great need in the country of Belize. The facilitators were from the Biodiversity Center of Belize, a branch of the Peter’s Institute in Dangriga. Director of Resources, Steven Harrison, told us about the newly formed Biodiversity Center of Belize.


Steven Harrison  – Director of Resources Biodiversity Center of Belize: 

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-11h42m26s207We met Dr Arlee Petters a few years ago, who works out of Dangriga at the Peters Research Institute.  We approached him with this idea of introducing DNA bar-coding to students in Belize.  We started last year taking students down to the field, and trying to collect insects and identify them, but we didn’t have the equipment yet.  This year was the second year, and it was an extension of that to then try and identify species using DNA and introduce these skills.  After the success last year in 2012,  Dr Petters created the Biodiversity Center of Belize, as part of the Petters Research Institute. From that we’re branching out and starting to do these workshops, with the goal being to train a workforce of Belizeans in these molecular skills, to either go into Biodiversity research, or forensics, or helping  in the Agriculture industry.  There’s many sub-fields that they could branch into.

The training is extremely important. As viewers may recall, not too long ago, US students had conducted DNA testing on local fillet sold in stores under the label of “snapper”. The DNA testing proved that most of those “snapper fillet” being sold in Belize were really “catfish”, not intentionally eaten by most Belizeans. Marisol Bonillo told us about some of what was covered in the course at Galen.


Marisol Bonillo – Biodiversity Center of Belize: 

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-11h59m07s188At the Biodiversity Center of Belize, we believe really strongly in developing young Belizean students to get really involved in stem fields.  We think the DNA bar-coding is a great way to introduce molecular technique, but also address some of the issues in Belize.  We really believe this is the next step.  It gets kids really excited about science.  It gets them excited about helping their country, and asking questions that can help people in Belize, so the forensics piece as well as the conservation and the biodiversity and industry in Belize, like the citrus and even like pharmaceuticals and things, thinking about how plants have medicinal values that  might benefit people in Belize.  The molecular work really ties in with those kinds of questions.


Plusnews visited the class and spoke to two of the students who explained the process of identifying fillet, using DNA.


April Martinez – Galen Student”

We were researching the mislabeling of fish.  [For example] the vendor will tell you this is a parrot-fish, and then we will make sure that it actually is a parrot-fish.


Ismael Teul – Galen Student:

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-14h14m16s155According to an article that we read,  San Pedro seems to have the highest percentage of mislabeled.  Behind that is Placencia.  Directly behind that is Belize City.  So those are the three main.  According to our article, PG seems to have the lowest, in fact zero percent of mislabeled fish.  Now that’s just according to the article. What our instructor wants to do is  a follow up of that paper.  That’s what you do in science, read a paper, say OK I kind of agree with what you’re saying,  but  let’s verify it, and then you verify it again.  That is what we’re doing today. 


April Martinez – Galen Student:

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-12h12m50s227We got our samples.  We made sure all of our equipment is properly sanitized, clean.  We cut the inside of the fillet to get a proper DNA.  You don’t want to do the outside  because of contamination.  You take a small piece, probably the size of a pencil eraser, and you put that in a Petri dish.


Ismael Teul – Galen Student:

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-12h32m09s73What we have here are tips for these micro-pipettes.  Right now we measure in one micro-liter.  I think the furthest we’ve gone up is about two hundred micro-liters. We use these tips and we would pump out small miniscule formulas.  There are different chemicals that we use within this process.  So what we see here is what we call a ladder.  It’s like a ruler.  The same way we use rulers to measure distances from this table to that table, we use DNA rulers to measure how far apart this DNA is.  There is a small segment of stain right there, and that’s a DNA.  So that’s the level we are working at, which is why many of our equipment here are very small.     There is a paper that tells us which measurements these are, but from what we learnt I can tell already this is anywhere between six hundred to seven hundred units.



Other students also  told us about their experience and why they decided to learn about DNA bar coding.


Ismael Teul – Galen Student:

We are the first set to learn this technique in Belize.  It really gives youi that pioneering scenes.  You feel great about it.  Many of us are talking about a DNA lab, but if we do get the lab, where does the expertise come from?  This, I feel, is a great way to start, even though that’s another technique. 


Kenny Chan – Galen Student:

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-13h09m02s154When I go to Grad School I want to expand my world, perhaps in Mayan Anthropology.   I will study the biology of different people from diverse cultures, especially here in Belize, where I wish to concentrate.




David Diego – Galen Student;

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-13h14m36s237In time when DNA really develops in Belize, if it should come to pass that we should do off-shore drilling, we want to be able to control any spores that would occur that would affect our ecosystem.  Our Coral Reef is the second largest and we really want to protect that.  In relation to pest control, like malaria, dengue, with the type of pesticide that we’re using that can be harmful to the ecosystem.  I think we could somewhat eliminate us using pesticide and find other alternatives that can affect our ecosystem, and maybe probably humans with the pesticides that we’re using.

April Martinez – Galen Student:

To my benefit I want to further in Grad School Forensics, Forensic Anthropology, and I think that this is very beneficial to that, because then I’ll be able to go more in depth with looking up different DNAs of crime and evidence .  It will definitely be very beneficial to Belize, because we don’t  have that type of equipment that can help us to solve crimes, because of lack of evidence, because we don’t have any way to test the DNA.  I think it’s really a great opportunity to be the first people to actually use these types of equipment. 



Facilitator Steven Harrison told us about the future of the course.


Steven Harrison –  Facilitator: 

vlcsnap-2013-07-22-14h11m08s78If you see behind us there’s not that much lab equipment.  Two suitcases can fit everything you need to be able to examine DNA and do this sort of research. What we want to do next is to create a primitive facility, not necessarily go from University to University, but a permanent place that Belizean students  interested in science can come to with research questions, or samples.  At the same time this facility can be training students who can work in an actual forensics facility at Belize. So we’re giving them the skills.  These skills aren’t unique just to bio-diversity.  These skills can be transferred into all these other fields.


Those who took the course were Anthropology and Environmental Sciences students.

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