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Delving into Genomics

Maria Elena Gamo

Elena Gamo, Associate Scientist, AbSci

Meet a “Very Cool” Scientist

When Maria Elena Gamo was an undergraduate in the Philippines, she sat in on an orientation in agricultural biotechnology at the suggestion of a friend, and found it surprisingly interesting.

flasks in Bond Lab

She shifted from a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture to a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Biotechnology. Elena went on to work for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an agricultural research organization. After she moved to the United States in 2014, Elena got a job at Calyxt, a plant-based biotechnology company in Roseville.

There she met Dr. Daniel Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor who studies genetic engineering and plant genomics and who is one of the company’s cofounders. Elena knew she wanted to increase her earning potential by completing a master’s degree. She was able to work full-time in Dr. Voytas's lab while she pursued her Master of Biological Sciences (MBS) degree part-time, taking a combination of evening and daytime courses.

"I think CCAPS is the way to do it if you’re working or if you're a single mom or dad."

The MBS graduate now lives in Vancouver, WA, where she is an associate scientist at AbSci, a synthetic biology company. Elena's main task at AbSci is DNA cloning and transformation to support innovative experimental research that advances AbSci’s proprietary E. coli SoluPro® expression platform.

Being part of the cloning process, Elena says, feels “very cool.”

Exploring the Potential of CRISPR

Nicotiana benthamiana

Elena’s MBS thesis focused on CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) Cas9 gene editing. CRISPR is a technology that can be used to edit genes by finding a specific bit of DNA inside a cell and altering it. She explains her work, as scientists often do, by identifying the problem first.

“There is a big bottleneck in plant gene editing, and it is delivering your CRISPR agents into the plant genome. The traditional way of delivering your CRISPR is by tissue culture, and that is expensive, tedious, and sensitive.”

For her thesis, Elena used an RNA virus expressing single-guide RNAs, which was developed by Evan Ellison and Dr. Daniel Voytas, to deliver CRISPR reagents in Nicotiana benthamiana. The goal was to knock out stomatal development genes and observe heritable mutations in three generations.

“We did it in Nicotiana benthamiana, which is a model plant, to see if it will be successful, and it was.”

Elena hopes to incorporate some of her CRISPR research experience into drug delivery and vaccine development in the future.

4 Quick Questions about the MBS

What was one big takeaway of the MBS program?

“For me, it would be that you can do your graduate school while you’re working full time. I think CCAPS is the way to do it if you’re working or if you're a single mom or dad. You can pick the schedule that you want.”

What courses did you take?

“I actually was surprised that I could take any class, so I focused on genetic engineering and genomics. I also took some immunology classes, since I'm interested in drug discovery and vaccine development.”

Which course or professor stood out for you?

“All of the courses were really good, but I think the one that I remember the most would be Advanced Molecular Genetics and Genomics. It was taught by Dr. David Greenstein who’s a super good professor, and he teaches in a way that helps you really understand. I loved it because there's a lot of discussion.”

Do you have any advice for other MBS students?

  • Make sure that you are going to be 100% there.
  • Do your research into the courses that you want to take before applying.
  • Don’t be shy to talk to your advisor because they're very, very helpful.