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Biosafety experts share ASU expertise at Mexico symposium

Biosafety briefing at Mexico City symposium

David Gillum, associate director of biosafety and biosecurity for Arizona State University's Environmental Health and Safety Office, leads a briefing on biosecurity during the seventh annual Asociación Mexicana de Bioseguridad Simposio held in Mexico City on June 3-6. Photo courtesy Irene Mendoza.

June 10, 2015

Two Arizona State University employees from an office considered an expert in its field had the opportunity to share their knowledge during a symposium in Mexico City.

Irene Mendoza and David Gillum from ASU’s Environmental Health and Safety Office were featured speakers at the June 3-6 Asociación Mexicana de Bioseguridad Simposio – a biosafety conference held annually in Mexico. 

The ASU biosafety and biosecurity team has published several research papers in The Journal of the American Biological Safety Association and are considered to be experts in the field, said Mendoza, EHS associate biosafety officer.

“It was a great honor to be chosen to teach this course because there were attendees not only from Mexico but from other parts of Central and South America,” she said. “They consider U.S. regulations and guidance documents to be the best management practices in biosafety and biosecurity, and they want to use them as a baseline to develop their own programs.”

Mendoza’s field of expertise is synthetic biology, or synbio. She presented a basics course on the subject during the symposium.

Synbio is a rapidly growing field throughout the world, said Mendoza. It applies concepts from different fields, such as engineering, math, physics and biology, to design and build new biological systems and redesign existing natural biological systems for useful purposes. 

“Some people are against synbio and others support it; however, the great majority of people are not aware of this field and need more information,” said Mendoza. “Presenting this course allowed us to educate individuals about the history of synbio, current applications and security principles attendees can take back to their home institutions and countries to educate others.”

Knowledge gained during the symposium will enable participants to make the best decisions based on scientific evidence and best practices, said Mendoza.  They can also assist their home governments and institutions in developing applicable synbio regulations, practices and policies.

As a developing country, Mexico is very interested in synbio technology to increase food production, develop new biofuels and develop new pharmaceuticals and medical diagnostics, said Mendoza. Other countries are also interested due to geographical and other challenges they face.

“Some crops are difficult to grow in some countries, and shipping them from other areas is very expensive,” said Mendoza.  “By using synbio technology, some crops could be made to be more resistant and grow in harsher weather, grow in larger quantities, and be used to improve the soil and growing conditions.”

Mendoza also added that synbio technology could lead to more consistent crop yields and allow countries to feed larger numbers of people.

“This would benefit rural communities greatly,” she said.  

On the other hand, the rapid evolution of the synbio field presents substantial security implications, said Gillum, EHS associate director of biosafety and biosecurity.

“There is great potential for both harm and benefit, which is why biosafety and security needs to be included in all aspects of synbio projects,” said Gillum. “From the chemicals being used in the laboratory, to the people performing the work, to the final product created, all participants in the field need to be aware of these issues and participate in making the practice as safe and secure as possible.”

The courses and discussions led by the ASU team were well received by the conference organizers and participants, said Mendoza. ASU has already been invited to attend next year’s conference.

“I am honored and delighted to have been given the opportunity to address the members of this conference,” said Gillum. “It was an exciting opportunity to travel to Mexico City and demonstrate the good work we have been doing at ASU, and to represent ASU at this symposium focused on Latin America.”