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Team of students designs biodegradable drone for competition

Materials created in drone’s construction could have wide-ranging environmental uses

In August, a Dutch tourist crashed an unmanned aerial vehicle — widely referred to as a drone — into an active hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. He was fined over $3,000 for operating a drone illegally in a U.S. national park, according to a September BBC News article.

Operating unmanned aerial vehicles has been prohibited in national parks since June, according to a National Park Service press release from that month. The press release cited three separate incidents in which drones interfered with wildlife, disrupted visitor experiences and crashed at Zion, Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon, respectively.

A team composed of students from Brown, Stanford University and Spelman College posited a potential solution to the issue when they entered the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which took place from late October to early November. The team modeled, prototyped and grew a biologically based, fully biodegradable UAV. This sort of drone would enable exploration of ecologically sensitive areas without the threat of the drone crashing and polluting the area. The cheap and sustainable materials involved would also prevent scientists from losing a large amount of money if a drone were to crash and allow them to easily create a replacement.

This marks the fourth year Brown and Stanford have competed as a team in the iGEM Giant Jamboree. Each year, the team has come up with a different project. Spelman students joined for the first time this year.

When determining a goal for the year, one of the team’s faculty advisers, Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist at NASA and adjunct professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry, identified creating a biological UAV as a significant goal for NASA, said Professor of Biology Gary Wessel, another of the team’s advisers.

While drone technology is appealing to the public, the sustainable materials they developed have much wider-reaching applications than just making a UAV, team members said. The UAV served simply as a “proof of concept” that functional technology of this kind can be produced using biological methods, said Jovita Byemerwa ’16 and Jeannette Gonzales-Wright ’16 MD’20, who both worked on the biodegradability of cellulose acetate — the project’s primary building material.

In their work on the project, Byemerwa and Gonzales-Wright extracted two genes from a bacterium that uses cellulose acetate as its sole source of carbon. They transformed the genes into E. coli, expressing them in order to degrade cellulose acetate at an accelerated rate.
Accelerated degradation of cellulose acetate was only one of several feats of genetic engineering involved in the project. Some team members worked to isolate proteins used by wasps — which build their nests out of cellulose — to waterproof the material, Byemerwa said. Others explored possibilities for increasing the strength of the cellulose and incorporating cellular sensors, which could someday begin to replace digital instrumentation like cameras, Gonzales-Wright said. There is still a long way to go before something as intricate as a camera could be replaced, she added.

In addition to the genetic engineering component of the project, members of the team examined the real-world applicability of the biologically derived materials they created, Byemerwa said. She and Gonzales-Wright specialize in the “human practices” aspect of the project, which considers applicability. The two expressed excitement at the team’s work with a particular strain of bacterial cell that effectively prevents the transfer of genetically modified cells into the environment.

“The goal of building a biodegradable drone was for … scientific missions and also humanitarian missions,” Byemerwa said, but the applications of the work done by each subgroup extend far beyond UAVs. Gonzales-Wright expressed enthusiasm about the idea of “replacing … sensing technologies with just cells” and biologically derived technologies slowly replacing synthetic ones.

While drones are exciting, she said, “what makes what we did over the summer awesome is the individual projects themselves.”


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