Scientist Uses CRISPR to Discover and Inspire


Senior Research Scientist José A. Fernández Robledo searches for revolutionary findings in overlooked places. He wields cutting-edge tools to probe natural compounds for potential new medicines, and oysters and clams for novel perspectives on human health research. At every opportunity, he uses his unique expertise to show students how technology can turn ideas once at home in science fiction into advancements beneficial for society.

Most recently, Fernández Robledo taught "Synthetic Biology," a four-week January term course at Colby College. His students explored topics from creating new organisms to developing novel medicines. While in residence for a week at Bigelow Laboratory, they even had the opportunity to use a cutting-edge synthetic biology technique themselves.

"One of the advantages for students who come to Bigelow Laboratory is having the opportunity to do authentic research using the most current techniques," Fernández Robledo said. "Each student had the opportunity to do hands-on work in our experiments, learning in almost one-on-one instruction with professional scientists."

The students were part of a critical step in Fernández Robledo's ongoing efforts to test whether an oyster parasite could become an unlikely public health ally. His team is using genetic engineering techniques to develop Perkinsus marinus as a potential vaccine delivery system, which could help inoculate people against infectious diseases. They are currently concentrating their efforts on Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria. Together with scientists at the Naval Medical Research Center, Fernández Robledo's team is investigating two Plasmodium genes with the potential to be developed for a vaccine against malaria.

Over the summer, they successfully used the precise gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas 9 to insert a fluorescent gene into Perkinsus cells. This important step confirmed that editing the Perkinsus genome is a viable approach, and it provides a baseline for them to target immune-related proteins in the future. In January, the Colby College students successfully replicated the experiments using CRISPR, resulting in Perkinsus cells that express Plasmodium genes.

"This is an example of the incredible potential of the sea, and why we study all the weird organisms that thrive in the ocean and its estuaries," Fernández Robledo said. "It is worthwhile to simply know the sequence of a microorganism's genome, but the real value lies in using that knowledge to ask targeted questions that can lead to unexpected discoveries that have beneficial applications."

Though they have been long overlooked by medicine, Fernández Robledo believes oysters and other bivalves have huge potential as model systems for biomedical research. His team is working to develop the molecular tools needed to probe bivalve genomes for lessons they can offer fields from cancer research to pharmaceutical development. He and Postdoctoral Researcher Raghavendra Yadavalli recently presented on their research into marine organisms at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. They are also exploring how to apply genetic engineering tools to conservation and bioremediation problems.

Beyond teaching formal courses like Synthetic Biology, Fernández Robledo makes a practice of involving students of all ages in his cutting-edge research. Last summer, the first trials using CRISPR included students in Bigelow Laboratory's Research Experience for Undergraduates program. He makes a point to reach out to younger students as well, allowing high school students to intern in his lab and recently teaching eighth graders to perform CRISPR experiments on yeast at the local Center for Teaching and Learning school in Edgecomb.

"Scientists around the world want to use CRISPR because of the incredible power and potential that it has, and we are proud to instruct students using the best tools available," Fernández Robledo said. "Global environmental and health challenges won't resolve themselves, but with our unique ocean science perspective and technological expertise, we can find solutions to both overcome disease and solve environmental problems."