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'BacteriaBots' Could Have a Big Impact on Many Fields, Including Oil Spill Cleanup

They may be small in scale, but they have big implications for a range of fields – such as targeted drug delivery or cleaning up oil spills.

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Undergraduate student researcher investigates bacteria-powered micro-robots as part of Scieneering program

BLACKSBURG, Va., June 15, 2012 – They may be small in scale, but they have big implications for a range of fields – such as targeted drug delivery or cleaning up oil spills.

Undergraduate student Meghan Canter of Forest, Va., a senior majoring in biological sciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science, is actively involved in the development and refinement of BacteriaBots. “It is like a micro-scale robot,” said Canter. “We work with engineered E. coli and attach it to micron sized particles. The bacterium acts as a propulsion force to move the particles. We try to direct where we want the particles to move.”

The small-scale robots have a range of possible uses in the fields of bio-sensing, medicine, micro-manufacturing and assembly, microelectronics, and biomaterials. One big picture use for BacteriaBots is to clean up oil spills. “You could send the BacteriaBots into the oil spill area and direct them where to go using chemotaxis, which is a process of using chemicals to either attract or repel the bacteria.”

Canter is personally investigating how BacteriaBots could help drug delivery for tumors. Recent research that shows Salmonella typhimurium is attracted to tumors has potential implications. “Tumors have blood vessels on the outside. As of now, that is how drugs are delivered to tumors. But it is hard to infiltrate the tumor itself,” explained Canter. “If we can direct the bacteria into the tumor carrying the drugs, however, it could degrade from the inside out.”

The Scieneering program gave Canter the opportunity to get involved in the project. The program is offered through the Division of Undergraduate Education and funded by a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Grant. Scieneering promotes interdisciplinary work -- combining science, engineering, and law.

The BacteriaBots project is a perfect example. Canter has co-mentors in two different disciplines. She works with Birgit Scharf, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, to purify proteins. Canter takes the purified proteins to the MicroN BASE laboratory run by Bahareh Behkam, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering, to video the bacteria in the presence of purified proteins. They use tracking software and microfluidic devices to run experiments with the bacteria in in vitro microenvironments. In addition, Behkam’s lab fabricates the particles the bacteria attaches to – creating the micro-robots.

Canter started work on the BacteriaBots project last summer as a member of the inaugural cohort of Scieneers. She maintained the project over the fall and spring semesters by enrolling in undergraduate research credit. She is back to continue her work as a Scieneer once again this summer, glad to be involved in undergraduate research. “When you research, you learn how to critically think, problem solve, and think for yourself,” explained Canter. “You learn things in class, but it is different when you actually get to do it.”

Beyond developing those skills, Canter expressed the value of undergraduate research to get to know faculty members and be more aware of what is going on across the university. “As students, we may be unaware of the cool things going on across campus. For example, during football games, you may see the ad that has a horse running on a treadmill. Chances are, students do not know where that is happening within the university community or what they are studying. When you do undergraduate research, though, you hear about these things and it makes intense science come to life.”

Since her involvement in BacteriaBots research, Canter has presented at several research conferences. “Conferences allow you to step back and look at the big picture – why you are doing what you are doing,” explained Canter.

She will have the opportunity to present any new discoveries she makes this summer at the Joint SURF and Scieneering Summer Research Symposium on Aug. 3, 2012, at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skeleton Conference Center. The public is invited to attend the event. More than 100 undergraduate students will present their summer research projects.