Increasing the Production of dsRNA for Use as Biological Pesticides; Genetic Engineering's Complicated Role In Future Society

Biedermann, Evan, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, University of Virginia
Frank, Joseph, AgroSpheres, Inc.

The next paradigm shift in engineering and society will come from biology. The 19th century saw the rise of machines and factories with the Industrial Revolution, the early 20th century was dominated by the atom, and the latest revolution has been in information with the dawn and expansion of the internet. Biology is the last major field of science that has yet to reach its full paradigm-shifting potential as an engineering field. That is beginning to change with new technological advancements which are lowering the economic barriers currently hindering progress. For the technical portion of my research project, my partner and I designed and implemented improvements to the production of biopesticides, a more effective and safer alternative to standard chemical pesticides. For my STS research project, I investigated the complex role that advancements in genetic engineering technology will have on society. By researching these topics concurrently, I discovered a more sophisticated way to implement and discuss advances in this field which will shape the direction of healthcare and society in the coming decades.
In my technical research project, I worked at AgroSpheres, a local biotechnology start-up, to optimize a fermentation process which produces biopesticides. The main improvement I implemented was an exponential feed rate process control algorithm which interfaced with 1 liter bioreactors to grow engineered E. coli cells more efficiently. The theory that motivated this design was that feeding exponentially would cause the cells to grow exponentially as they would in an environment with abundant nutrients. The effectiveness of the system was tested by quantifying cell growth and RNA production using a plate reader. The optimal feed rate would be one that maximizes cell growth while maintaining RNA production efficiency. One of the biggest challenges I faced during this project was working around AgroSpheres’ production schedule to gather validation data for my new process. Despite these setbacks, I was still able to obtain results which indicated this new method of feeding will likely be more efficient than the company’s previous feeding method after a bit more optimization of the exponential rate constant. This project taught me how to optimize a bioprocess, which is a staple of research in the field of biotechnology.
In my STS research project, I evaluated the use of gene editing technology and how it should be utilized in a way that avoids atrocities similar to ones made in the past. The purpose of this research is to recognize the potential future consequences of using this technology, and propose some guidelines to follow while developing new advances in healthcare and human well-being. In my research, I discovered and investigated a multitude of ethical concerns surrounding this new groundbreaking technology. An interesting insight I gained from my research was discovering an assumption among bioethicists that access to gene editing technology would cause wide-spread genetic conformity. Ultimately, my research has shown me that this area of biomedical research is fraught with potential controversial applications. Therefore, every engineer working in this space should proceed with caution and follow the goal of increasing an individual’s control of their own prospering.
Working on both research projects has enhanced my understanding of the biotechnology industry from a technical and ethical standpoint. My technical project has taught me how prevalent and standardized the practices of this industry are becoming. The STS research project made me realize that this industry is likely going to be at the forefront of public debate about engineering ethics in the coming years. Ultimately, researching these projects concurrently has sufficiently prepared me to enter this industry and deal with any ethical or technical issues that arise in my lifetime. I would also like to acknowledge the whole team at AgroSpheres for the help, guidance, and resources they provided me throughout the year. I would especially like to thank Jake Englaender, Liz Somers, and my technical advisor Joey Frank.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Biopesticides, Fermentation, Genetic Enhancement, Eugenics, CRISPR-Cas9, Biotechnology

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Joseph Frank
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Evan Biedermann, Allison Boboltz

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