From Bacteria to Biodesign

Feb 26 2019 | By Jesse Adams | Student Photo Credit: Jesse Adams | Growth Sample Photo Credit: Candice Gurbatri

Science is only beginning to understand the astounding versatility of bacteria. Capable of sensing their environment and forming complex organic structures, these one-celled organisms perform feats integral to human health and play a key role in shaping the larger ecosystem—all while expending surprisingly little energy. In just the past few years, researchers have harnessed their unique powers to pilot clean tech for creating electricity, biofuels, and eco-friendly synthetic dyes. What else is possible?

That question was at the heart of the Columbia’s first-ever biohackathon, convening engineers, biologists, architects and entrepreneurs to start dreaming up new applications for the bacteria in, on, and all around us.

“The point is to integrate engineering and design into biology,” said Biomedical Engineering professor Tal Danino, who co-led the two-day sprint over February 9 and 10. “This is how new fields are born.”

The workshop kicked off with presentations from Danino and Professors Lars Dietrich of Biological Sciences and David Benjamin of the Graduate School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who each spoke about their research programming bacteria to do everything from producing insulin to manufacturing biodegradable bricks.

Swabs in hand, students then formed interdisciplinary teams and fanned out around campus in search of fertile ground. They collected samples of such local microbiomes as gym mats, water fountains, subway platforms, and cigarette butts. Back at Mudd, graduate researchers walked students through how to culture the samples and track bacterial growth patterns.

Day two involved selecting samples that evinced promising growth, taking time to brainstorm potential applications. Initial ideas ranged from using bacterial patterns as biosensors to generating novel materials for underwater construction.

“My team is comprised entirely of first-year Art of Engineering students in areas from computer science to computational biology,” said Columbia Engineering freshman Edna Liban Egal ’22. “As our bacterial cultures continue to grow, we hope our various interests will enable us to create something that’s exciting, innovative, and practical.”

The weekend set the stage for the University’s participation in this year’s international Biodesign Challenge, where over 30 student teams from colleges and universities around the world will gather at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to present biotechnology projects. Columbia can enter just one project to compete at the June summit, so teams are encouraged to develop fully-fledged proofs of concept to compete later in the semester for that sole spot.

“Anyone here could potentially come up with something that could change the world, thanks to these three professors from such different fields,” said Sara Sakowitz ’18CC, a researcher in Dietrich’s lab whose team is considering working on wastewater reclamation. “It’s so Columbia.”