Research scientist Javier A. Ceja-Navarro, Ecology Department, Climate and Ecosystem Sciences, shows three undergraduate students from the University of Guatemala around Berkeley Lab. In the Ecology Lab, the young women learned to extract DNA from environmental samples – a technique that will be useful to their own study of mosquitoes and flies that are currently having negative economic impact on Latin American agriculture.

Research scientist Javier A. Ceja-Navarro, Ecology Department, Climate and Ecosystem Sciences, recalls what it was like to facilitate the process of gel electrophoresis in his native Mexico before relocating seven years ago. These memories helped him relate to how excited three undergraduate students from the University of Guatemala were during their visit to Berkeley Lab last week.

“In Mexico, electrophoresis took hours. First, we had to make a solution to create the gel. Next, we had to cast the gel. Then we waited hours for the nucleic acids to separate,” says Ceja-Navarro.

“Here, I open a package of pre-made gels, load the DNA samples into the electrophoresis machine — and 10 minutes later it’s finished. It was really great to see tools and protocols that we view as so simple through the eyes of these students.”

Ceja-Navarro invited Andrea Cuadra, Isabella Garcia, and Mariana Lopez to visit the lab after meeting their university’s department director, Pamela Pennington, at a conference and realizing that the university and Berkeley Lab’s Ecology Department share common research interests. He and Pennington thought the students whose undergraduate thesis research involves three insects of economic significance would benefit from learning about Berkeley Lab’s study of the role of the gut microbiome in mosquitoes through its Microbes to Biomes project.

Cuadra is looking at the role of the microbiome in the ability of the Anopheles albimanus mosquito to survive chemical control. Garcia and Lopez are involved in a collaborative project between the University of Guatemala and a Guatemalan company focused on finding ways to render sterile male Ceratitis capitata flies using gene modification. Doing so would reduce populations of the invasive fly in agricultural fields throughout Latin America where it is decimating citrus fruit trees. Anastrepha ludens is another fly being researched.

As their host, Ceja-Navarro showed the young women around various labs across the Berkeley Lab campus. He also led a two-day classroom lecture on bioinformatics for the analysis of microbiome, attended by students and research associates from the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, which encourages university students to pursue STEM careers by providing research experiences at Department of Energy laboratories.

Javier A. Ceja-Navarro, Ecology Department, Climate Sciences Division, led a two-day classroom lecture for visiting university students on bioinformatics for the analysis of microbiome. The undergraduate students visited Berkeley Lab from the University of Guatemala and as guests through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program.

In the Ecology Department’s lab, the Guatemalan students learned to extract DNA from soil, studied insects, nematodes, and protists. Then the extracted DNA was used to amplify genes for the identification of the microbial populations in the samples. Another highlight of their Berkeley Lab visit was experiencing the Advanced Light Source (ALS) with the assistance of Antoine Masson, postdoctoral fellow, Climate and Ecosystems.

Cuadra feels fortunate to have seen and learned so much during her visit. “Since we are working with DNA extractions and with the synthesis of cDNA from ARN, it was helpful to learn about the techniques that Javier’s group uses to ensure high-quality and concentration of genomic DNA,” Cuadra says. “We were shown all the details we need to consider to guarantee good results in our work. We also learned how to use software’s like QIIME to analyze mega data and be able to manage and interpret our results in the best way possible.”

Ceja-Navarro was excited by the enthusiasm Cuadra and her colleagues showed for learning about how they might apply what they learned here to their own work back in Guatemala.  

“These undergraduate students are already involved in really sophisticated research. Staff here at the lab were impressed by what great scientific questions each of them had,” Ceja-Navarro says. “We wanted to open the students’ eyes to all the various tools and techniques that are possible in ecological and molecular biology research.”