Thursday, December 4, 2014

Viruses... What Are They Good For?

If your first thought was "Absolutely nothing," Module 3 just proved you wrong.  Viruses have been in the public eye a lot lately with the most recent Ebola outbreak, and they tend get a bad rap because of their role disease.  What viruses don't often get credit for though is how useful they can be as tools for science and engineering.  Coming into this module, I was somewhat familiar with the usefulness of viruses within the realms of biology and medicine.  For example, I knew that viruses had been used or considered as therapeutic agents (like in phage therapy or viral-based therapies) and that they were routinely used for genome integration into mammalian cell lines.  Until this module, however, I didn't realize that viruses could also be used for making materials, an application that surprised me given how non-biological it seemed.  Biological engineering is such a diverse field!

Not unexpectedly, I found this module to be overall quite different from the two previous ones.  Whereas I was already familiar with a decent amount of the protocol from the first two modules before setting foot in 20.109, Module 3 was almost entirely new for me.  Some of these new techniques were really exciting, like looking at phage and nanoparticles using a transmission electron microscope and watching the efficiency of our solar cells pop up on the solar simulator.  In fact, I found the TEM images to be the most exciting data that we collected all semester.  I was slightly less enthusiastic about some of the wet lab work leading up to those experiments, though, which seemed to involve a lot of time centrifuging and resuspending.

However, despite how different this module was from the first two in terms of content, there seems to be a theme in biological engineering that it takes a lot of work and intermediate steps to reach the capstone experiments that produce interesting data.  For example, in Module 1, all of the cloning that we did was just preparation for our final transfection experiment.  And when the results don't turn out as expected (like with a few of the experiments from Module 2), it can be disheartening given the amount of preparation that goes into them.

So, what's all that work good for?  Definitely not nothing.  Exciting results and novel applications, like making batteries out of viruses, make the intermediate steps worth it in the end.  Because who would have thought that viruses could help produce electricity instead of just causing disease?  Only a biological engineer.

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