Latin America is changing the world through science and innovation

From data science to synthetic biology, Latin American scientists have been integral in advancing breakthroughs that have the potential to change the world.


There is groundbreaking science happening in every corner of the world, and Latin America is no exception. The United States Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global has been funding and working with researchers from Latin America since the early 2000s. This research has contributed to the technological advantages and awareness that allows the U.S. Navy to maintain maritime supremacy. From data science to synthetic biology, Latin American universities, research centers, and scientists have been integral to ONR Global’s success and in advancing breakthroughs that have the potential to change the world.

Synthetic biology – Mexico

As stories of oil spills and toxic waste contamination fill media headlines, the importance of ecological restoration innovation is undeniable. Through synthetic biology, ONR Global and its partners at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Yucatán, are investigating ways to decontaminate environments that have been negatively impacted by hydrocarbons through the use of genetically-engineered bacteria.

Today, synthetic biology is largely limited to experimenting with laboratory organisms, such as E. coli, which are restricted to controlled environments. Dr. Mario Alberto Martínez, and his team, are trying to change that through the identification of new bacterial organisms in the coastal areas of Yucatán. Specifically, they are looking for organisms with genetic frameworks that would enable testing in a wider array of environments, including extreme temperatures and pH levels. These types of advances could allow greater development and deployment of products that can be used in environmental restoration projects.

Dr. Diogenes Placencia, science director at ONR Global São Paulo, explains that “the vast sets of biological environments that surround the Yucatán make it a prime location for the discovery of [bacteria that contain new genetic structures],” which could revolutionize the world’s ability to address man-made environmental disasters.

Nanostructures – Costa Rica

Dr. Sergio Paniagua of Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnología (CeNAT) in San Jose, Costa Rica, is developing nanostructures that will keep surfaces bacteria-free. ONR Global became interested in the applications of this research to combat the spread of illness in spaces with close quarters, such as ships and submarines, which can be breeding grounds for bacteria that wreak chaos for sailors and marines in the U.S. Navy.

However, the potential for this research goes far beyond military applications. Integrating this technology into hospitals and biomedical devices would greatly decrease intra-hospital contagion by reducing bacteria colonies. Bacteria adhere to surfaces that may seem smooth to human touch, but are still rough at the microscopic-level. Through precise analysis in topographical composition, nanostructures can bind bacteria to the surface of an object, prohibiting them from propagating or traveling to another object.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, the technology may also have a far wider application in the commercial sector for use in “high-touch surfaces.” Based on the results of how nanostructures interact with bacteria, researchers may be able modify them in order to limit the spread of viruses as well.

Low-cost ventilators – Brazil

As COVID-19 continues to ravage Brazil, a group of researchers, led by Dr. Marcelo Zuffo from the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo, is studying pressure-driven lung tissue damage to produce low-cost, high-tech ventilators for hospitals. The high mortality rate of COVID-19 is partly due to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which often necessitates treatment with lung ventilators. When patients are connected to these ventilators without close monitoring, the pressure-driven treatment itself may cause lung tissue damage and even contribute to the cause of death.

The team’s hybrid ventilator, an open-source, low-cost ventilator named INSPIRE, also enables doctors to monitor their patients remotely. The design is built from off-the-shelf components that are widely available in order to keep production costs low.

ONR Global granted the research award both for the immediate applicability, as well as long-term comprehension of how to approach ARDS through mechanical ventilation. The research is also exploring how to make the ventilators more portable—as well as solar-powered—for medical and military operations in the field, where conventional electrical power may not be available.

Early warnings of social crises – Chile

Social media’s ability to mobilize massive demonstrations—such as those seen during the Arab Spring—and the difficulty in mapping these social movements across cyberspace, has shown that social networks are as powerful as they are complex. Subtle variations in these interconnected webs of society have led to mass protests, violence, and revolution. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to better detect early warning signs of potential social crisis. 

Juan Pablo Cárdenas, lead researcher at Net-Works, a center dedicated to big data analysis, is working to detect these early warning signals in online social networks by analyzing social media data for patterns that can help predict when a macro-shift will occur in a social system. The research suggests that many complex systems have inflection points, in which the system abruptly changes and begins to exacerbate the problem. To identify when social systems hit that inflection point, and flip from a “normal” state to a “critical” state, the project applies algorithms borrowed from applied biology and ecology that are used to detect similar patterns in the natural world.

This line of research, framed within the field of complexity science and the study of complex adaptive systems (CAS), aims to assist decision-making in a future that is becoming increasingly rooted in high-speed, interconnected human interaction where the identification of critical states in social systems may mean the difference between the rise and fall of entire states.

Changing the world

These are only a few of the U.S. ONR Global-Latin American partnerships that not only contribute to groundbreaking technical advances to keep our world safe, but also deepen the international scientific relationships between the United States and Latin America. This exchange of ideas and support builds trust that reinforces national common interests as well as traditional diplomatic coordination between countries. More importantly, the research being done by our Latin American scientific partners goes far beyond security applications; their innovations are changing the world. 

Felipe Reisch is a Strategic Communications Specialist at the Office of Naval Research Global. ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities.

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