Dr. Arlie Petters brings DNA bar coding technology to Belizean youth “They are gobbling up the knowledge that you need to understand DNA bar coding. It must be something in the milk” – Dr. Petters Petters Research Institute wants to pioneer natural history museum in Belize by Adele Ramos Amandala newspaper, Belize
BELIZE CITY, Tues. July 24, 2012 “Belize is a biodiversity hotspot and efforts are still needed to catalogue new species, monitor invasive species, identify genetic consequences of urbanization, and monitor the effects of environmental degradation.” This declaration was made by Petters Research Institute (PRI) in detailing the value of a novel summer program which began this Monday, July 23.
PRI is headed by world renowned Belizean scientist, Dr. Arlie Petters, currently based at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is in Belize helping to prepare 22 young minds to become tomorrow’s scientists.
Instructors Stephen Harris, Ph.D candidate in Biology at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center specializing in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior; Marissa Bellino, a teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies (NY); and Elliot Aguilar, a Belizean Ph.D candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the CUNY, are training the students in classical field ecology methods, to survey biodiversity in tropical coastal forests; invertebrate and plant sampling techniques, to build a long-term collection of organisms for further study; and a study on how human interference has affected the natural habitat around Dangriga, Belize. Additionally, they get to learn the theory of DNA bar coding, where molecular techniques are used to identify species from small genetic samples.
The main goal, Harris told Amandala, is to introduce students to biodiversity and cutting edge DNA bar coding techniques. They are hoping to bring molecular biology equipment to PRI within the next year, so they will have a working molecular biology lab for Belizeans.
Dr. Arlie Petters said that the DNA bar coding is not too high-tech for the students, who are ages 12 to 16: “These young people are simply amazing!” said Petters.
“They are gobbling up the knowledge that you need to understand DNA bar coding. It must be something in the milk,” he joked. “When I was their age, it would take me forever to learn this.”
He said that new DNA bar coding technology is accessible even to high school students, and it uses a very precise way of cataloguing different plants and animals, which can form part of a DNA bank.
“There must be thousands and thousands of species of plants and animals in Belize,” he said, optimistic that the training will help to nurture, from among the group, future environmental scientists and naturalists.
“They will be the ones using this new way of cataloguing,” said Petters, who told us that it is very timely to start introducing the children to this kind of “accessible knowledge.”
Harris said that insects rule the world. They are the most diverse group of animals and they are great specimens for understanding the concept of biodiversity and DNA bar coding, he added.
On Wednesday, the students are taking field trips to collect insect samples from both urban locations in Dangriga Town and rural locations in the Stann Creek Valley area. By doing so, they will be able to contrast the level of biodiversity in rural and urban locations, and learn how humans can help to preserve natural biodiversity. On Thursday, they will catalogue and mount the specimens for an in-house collection.
According to Dr. Petters, the lead researcher, Harris, has a handheld GPS device that they will use to record the exact location of where each insect specimen is found. He also said that they are going to be on the watch for any new insect species.
“I will be teaching the students about the science behind GPS technology,” Petters also told us, saying that this will provide an opportunity for him to relate to the students about the connection between the physics they learn in school and how the GPS works. They are getting an intro to methods that are cutting edge, he added.
Petters told us that the aim was to choose hardworking, highly motivated young people. Participants in the Bio-Belize camp have been drawn from Dangriga schools, as well as St. John’s College and Belize High School in Belize City. A few students are Belizean-Americans living in the US and one hails from Belmopan.
“They, to me, will be the next generation that will be applying [the technology] to the conservation of plants and animals,” said Dr. Petters.
Petters also said that if they are able to get their DNA bar coding machine set up next year, Petters Research Institute can become a resource for universities here, such as the University of Belize and Galen University.
Harris said that he had been working with Petters for the past 8 to 9 months on the initiative. He said that he was introduced to Dr. Petters through Elliot Aguilar, and he was excited about doing something for Elliott’s home country, Belize. Harris said he intends to continue working with Petters as instructor and researcher, as he shares the vision for PRI to become a hub for science education and research in Belize.
The work being done this summer, Petters added, is the first step towards creating a natural history museum in Belize.
“We need to have our own natural history museum,” said Dr. Petters. “The Institute is the place. We want to take the first step towards that.”
Although the 2012 Bio-Belize camp ends on Friday, July 27, 2012, the participants and researchers will stay in touch via the Internet. Petters said they hope to expand their program next year.
More information on the program, as well as future updates, can be obtained at biobelize.org.