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‘It’s time to work beyond the lab’ – Q+A with Bolivian Biotechnologist, Carla Crespo Melgar

April 20, 2023

“We understood that it’s time to work beyond the lab, travel to communities and understand their problems in production.” 

– Biotechnologist Carla Crespo Melgar

 We are delighted to share this interview with Bolivian scientist Carla Crespo Melgar, Director of the Biochemical Drug Research Institute at the Higher University of San Andrés (UMSA), in La Paz. Crespo Melgar is one of just seven women scientists to be awarded the 2023 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World, celebrating innovative research to tackle food insecurity.  Her numerous academic achievements reflect her vision of biochemistry focused on solving societal problems through innovation.

Crespo Melgar has researched different topics around the biotechnological potential of microorganisms in industry, agriculture, and health. To stop outbreaks of infections in juvenile trout reared in Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia, Crespo Melgar added probiotics – living microorganisms beneficial to health – to their diet. She also sought to strengthen foods such as quinoa bars with probiotics to support vulnerable populations in her country.In Bolivia, where mining is considered a key economic driver, she investigated the use of bacteria to clean waterways contaminated with heavy metals such as zinc, chromium, and lead. She spoke to science journalist Claudia Mazzeo of the journal SciDevNet, an LIDC member organisation, with whose permission this is published.


One of the topics you focus on is the development of resistant crops. What does that involve?

We explore probiotics as biofertilisers and biopesticides for phytosanitary disease control in quinoa crops. We understood the need to take research beyond our labs and finally achieve a product. Then we left our comfort zone and sought to partner with the National Association of Quinoa Producers, a very solid entity in the production of this food.

Through them, we have partnered with communities in the highlands, especially the southern highlands of Bolivia, one of the regions where quinoa is produced, the most affected by climate change and the most vulnerable. Their population is supported by this crop and when the weather is very severe, their production is destroyed and they have no economic support.

The first year we did workshops where we could exchange knowledge – because we’re not quinoa producers, we’re researchers. Through the dialogue of knowledge, we have been learning how quinoa is cultivated, its cultural practices and what problems producers face.

That’s why we understood that it’s time to work beyond the lab, travel to communities and understand their problems in production. We see that they are damaging their own farming ecosystems, but also that they are highly vulnerable as a community to climate change.

What is the current status of the investigation?

The climatic inclemencies in this region are drought (which is extreme and prolonged, with 295 days a year of drought), frost (with extreme minimum temperatures) and winds. We have validated what we had obtained in the laboratory, in the field and with ANAPQUI [the national association of quinoa producers]… we learn to work with agronomists and select the best microorganisms. These not only promote quinoa growth but also tolerate drought. We have planted demonstration plots with the producers, reviving their cultural activity for sowing; they have their rituals and traditions which we participate in.

The industry is also quite demanding. They don’t just expect the plants to be healthy; they want to confirm that it’s really cost-effective, improves product quality and quinoa yield on the chosen plots.We hope to establish which are the best microorganisms that, in symbiosis with the plant, will be the basis for the development of bio-inputs in Bolivia.

What would you say to students interested in food security?

That there is much to be developed in the country. Food security goes hand in hand with sustainable agriculture. I would invite them to be part of the research teams because there are several people focused on this area at UMSA and other universities.

So, there is much work to be done and there is room for everyone and their contributions because problems are not solved from a single approach. Solving a problem requires the input of many disciplines.

This piece was supported by the Elsevier Foundation, a corporate foundation focused on sustainable development in gender, health, climate and reducing inequalities. It is reproduced with the kind permission of SciDevNet’s global desk.

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