Team:StanfordBrownSpelman/Lynn Interview


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Stanford–Brown–Spelman iGEM 2014 — Human Practices

Questions & Answers
Q: For how long have you been working with UAVs? A: Even though I have been here a very long time, I only started getting interested in UAVs about six months to a year ago. For various reasons, I think UAVs are useful for the science that we conduct at Ames, and I think we can contribute to their building.

Q: Could you elaborate on the reasons UAVs are important in your career? A: My primary interest has been in looking for life elsewhere in the universe. One of the things UAVs could be particularly good for is surveying the surface of a planet. Now on the Earth, it seems that every square inch has been covered by Google Maps. But that isn’t true for Mars, or Titan, or Europa. When you land on another planetary body with a mothership, it might be very cool to be able to release UAVs at the surface and find out about interesting areas. I am also, of course, interested in planet Earth, given it is my home. I have been interested in the use of UAVs remotely in Earth Science. For example, to monitor coral reefs. I am mainly interested in ground-based research, and I can get much more detail about where I am looking by doing ground-base experiments. But once you get in the air, you can cover much more area.

Q: How are UAVs connected to synthetic biology? A: Well, in the past, UAVs have not been connected to synthetic biology at all. But I am in the Earth Science group at NASA Ames, and periodically UAVs get lost- for example, on coral reefs or in other sensitive habitats. As I started to hear about this, I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be useful if the UAV was biodegradable, so if it crashed somewhere that was sensitive, it wouldn’t matter if it dissolved. Synthetic biology can do that. In addition, these UAVs could be lighter and certainly a lot cheaper to make. You can make many more and not harm the environment, so that’s why I got interested in combining the two.

Q: Do you think a biosynthetic UAV would be as efficient as it’s more conventional counterpart? A: I think that synthetic biology UAVs could be equally efficient. Where my dream is to make a UAV where every single part of it could be replaced with something you could make biologically, that may not be completely practical. For example, you might want to have a camera on a UAV, and it might be really difficult to have an organism perform the same function or produce images that are worth anything. So, realistically, this is going to be much more of a hybrid vehicle. But much of the body of the vehicle could certainly be made biologically. There are many biosensors, there are many bits and pieces that we could do. That’s one of the many things that my lab, particularly the Stanford-Brown-Spelman iGEM team is exploring this summer.

Q: What is the biggest drawback to using a biosynthetic UAV? A: I think the biggest drawback is having it crash. There’s a big difference between having a living organism on there, and just products an organism made. For example, our team is thinking about using microbial cellulose. Cellulose itself is in wood, most of cotton, and all around nature. Once the cells make it, it really doesn’t matter whether it came from a cotton plant, a tree, or the microbes in the lab. I’m not concerned about that. However, if you having living organisms acting as biosensors and then the plane crashes, there certainly could be problems as this plane interacts with the environment. Hopefully people could think of this in advance, and design such that this never became a problem. For example, on crashing, the cells might die. Or the cells could be attenuated. There are all sorts of other processes to keep them from contaminating the environment. But that, to me, is the largest concern with a biological UAV- having living things on the UAV.
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