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Day in the life of… a master microbiologist

At EI, our plant biotechnology and scientific experts are leading the way in genome engineering - setting the standards for synthetic biology techniques and methods.

March 20, 2019

Supporting the UK bioscience community, our DNA Foundry provides a fantastic resource for advanced genomics research in global food security and human health.

We speak to our DNA Foundry Manager Jose A. Carrasco Lopez who has over 15 years’ experience in microbiology, molecular biology and biotechnology across Spain, the US and UK; working on human pathogens, developing vaccines and industrial production.

Hi Jose! How did you get into your area of science? What made you choose EI?

Since I was 14, I felt a tremendous passion for microbiology. It is remarkable how so many tiny creatures are able not only to grow but to flourish in every unimaginable environment, produce metabolites of great value and contribute to human health. I thought harnessing these abilities through molecular and synthetic biology seems an interesting way to spend your time.

My career has been focused on understanding the functions of microbes and how we can benefit from them. The EI DNA Foundry is one of only five locations across the UK, funded by the BBSRC, in which you can combine engineering, automation and molecular biology - providing the academic community and synthetic biology industry with suitable tools for plants and microbes. That’s why I chose to work at EI.

Sample preparation in the Earlham DNA Foundry

Sample preparation in the Earlham DNA Foundry

What are you currently working on?

The EI DNA Foundry, as part of our National Capability in synthetic biology, is able to be utilised for many different projects depending on the user’s scientific needs. Currently, our projects involve the nanoscale high-throughput DNA assembly of several hundred gene sequences into five different genetic vectors totalling more than 750 genetic constructs.

We’re working on the automation of handling collections of mutants (organisms that carry an alteration in their DNA) which allow us to deal with thousands of cell colonies and test them phenotypically.

We’re also developing automated workflows to miniaturise PCR and qPCR protocols at nanoscale volumes. The automation and miniaturisation of protocols has a strong impact on science because it reduces cost on consumables, avoids human error when working with hundreds to thousands of samples and saves time which you can actually then spend on progressing your research instead of doing repetitive tasks.

The Earlham DNA Foundry uses state-of-the-art automated liquid handling equipment

Automation in the Earlham DNA Foundry

What’s your motivation?

Mainly, I have two motivations. I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving and am fairly greedy in curiosity and learning!

I think these personality traits have always pushed me to pursue a science career.

What does your typical day look like? What’s the best part?

My working day is divided between the lab and the computer, gaining the latter more time to the detriment of the former. We develop new automated workflows which require computer work for design, lab work to build, test and optimise the process, and brain work to learn and troubleshoot issues that will arise from the ‘design-build-test’ cycle.

I provide scientific support to the DNA Foundry user and quotes for our services or collaborations, requiring interaction with researchers and small companies to understand their scientific needs and let them know about the available tools at the EI DNA Foundry.

This is probably the part that I like the most because I’m able to learn about new research and try to solve their problems to reach specific biological goals.

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I provide scientific support to the DNA Foundry user and quotes for our services or collaborations, requiring interaction with researchers and small companies to understand their scientific needs and let them know about the available tools at the EI DNA Foundry.

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What are you proud of? Is there something you would have done differently?

I’m proud of my family. I’m lucky to be the father of two wonderful girls (9 and 16) which already have lived in three countries (USA, Spain and UK). The youngest has dual-nationality, they are bilingual and eager to learn more languages, very creative and curious about the world they live in.

I suppose there are many things I’d have done differently once I knew the outcome, but everything done was the best choice at the time. There is never enough time to spend with family and friends, so I’m trying to make the most of my free time.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

It is interesting how a challenge is no more once you conquer it. When you are at school, every following year appears to be a bigger challenge than the previous one and this pattern does not disappear from our minds everytime we face the future.

Professionally, my biggest challenge was to move from Spain to the USA without a job to support my wife’s career, complete my PhD, and find a postdoctoral position.

Personally, it was being without my family last year.

Who or what inspires you?

My mum’s resilience, my father’s curiosity and my daughters’ smiles.

What do you like to do out of work?

I like to ride my bike, read sci-fi, play PS4 with my kids, watch movies with my wife, and to listen to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins podcasts and videos.

What are your career aspirations? Where would you like to be in five-years’ time?

I would like to grow with the EI DNA Foundry. I believe that synthetic biology and automation are very powerful tools to move human knowledge forward, and to solve and overcome global problems and future challenges.

Jose is hopeful that the Earlham DNA Foundry will help to solve global problems and future challenges

Jose is hopeful that the Earlham DNA Foundry will help to solve global problems and future challenges

What are your future plans for the Foundry?

During this year, we are aiming to grow our scientific and user network, develop new automated workflows to adapt our capabilities, develop training at EI (courses and students) to show what we can offer through our DNA Foundry, engage with Erasmus students and progress current projects.

What advice would you give to those who are interested in getting into genomics?

I think, as a rule of thumb, make sure you’re passionate about your research subject, be flexible, embrace change and learning, and choose your supervisor wisely.

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There is a Spanish saying: “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar”, which means: “(in life) there’s no path, you’ll make it walking, so go walk your own.”

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Article author

Jose A. Carrasco Lopez

DNA Foundry Manager