Up on stage, Elizabeth Dougherty opened the folded paper, the foil seal flickering in the lights. “And the winner is,” she paused for dramatic effect, “from the University of Virginia....”
But nothing more could be heard, whoops and cheers obscured her words. Fists were pumped in the air, tears shed.
This triumphant moment belonged to a team of undergraduates and their adviser, participating in the Collegiate Inventors Competition at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Dougherty, the USPTO’s director of inventor education, outreach and recognition, and others in attendance honored Ameer Shakeel and Payam Pourtaheri for their group’s revolutionary product AgroSpheres, created with a goal of eliminating the damaging side effects of pesticides worldwide.
The duo stepped up on stage grinning unabashedly as they donned the heavy gold medals given to them as the overall winners in the competition’s undergraduate division. This highly competitive, nationwide contest encourages “innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity,” showcasing cutting-edge, student-led projects from colleges and universities across the country. (USPTO, which partners with Smithsonian.com to support stories on innovation at the Smithsonian Institution and beyond, is also a sponsor of the competition.) In addition to the hardware, the first place winners take home $10,000 with an additional $2,000 for their adviser.
“Our parents are our motivation,” says Pourtaheri on stage after the announcement. “We were both not born in the United States. They brought us here and restarted their lives so we can do what we want to do,” he says. “When they set the bar so high, it's up to you to make them proud, because you want to show them how proud of them you are.”
His research partner agreed, “I wasn't really smart enough to get into a good elementary school or middle school,” Shakeel says. So his mother worked for 12 years at his school in Pakistan so that he could get in and get a good education. “After that, it's my responsibility to do everything I can with the opportunities presented.”
Since 1990, the Collegiate Inventors Competition has recognized the hard work of both undergraduate and graduate inventors. This year, Carl Schoellhammer from MIT won the graduate division with his work on SuonoCalm, designed to provide more efficient rectal drug delivery—a so-called “21st-century enema,” the chemical engineer says in his Twitter-ready explanation. Second place in the undergraduate division went to a team from Columbia University, working on Cathecare, a product designed to eliminate opportunities for infections with catheter drug delivery.
Of the finalists, AgroSpheres seemed particularly groundbreaking, says Radia Pearlman, a computer scientist most known for her invention of Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and one of the competition judges. “Getting rid of pesticides is an incredibly important problem, and deep science in terms of how [they] actually do it,” she says.
Pesticides are rampantly used worldwide—with global use totaling roughly 5.2 billion pounds in both 2006 and 2007, according to a comprehensive EPA study. Though these compounds are beneficial for yields and quality of crops, they have many negative side effects for wildlife and humans alike, such as cancer.
One of the biggest problems, notes Shakeel, is that developing nations shoulder the greatest burden of pesticide use. In these regions, regulations are limited. Children are often a substantial part of the rural workforce, and many may work without protective equipment or adequate training.
“We were both born in developing countries,” explains Shakeel. “And we were aware of the social problems associated with pesticide use—how it affects farmers the most.”
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces certain pre-harvest intervals (PHIs)—or time requirements between when pesticides are applied and when the crops are harvested. And though these periods allow the compounds to degrade to safe levels for harvesting, reducing risk to the workers, they also can slow down the harvest, causing crop loss if foul weather sets in before the waiting period is up.
AgroSpheres eliminates the need for PHIs, speeding the degradation of pesticides to a matter of hours as opposed to weeks or even months, says Shakeel. The idea took seed two years ago after the pair learned of an earlier attempt from a UVA team to create “bioparticles,” which are tiny biologically created balls of enzymes that can interact with and break down other compounds. But that research had ended there, without refinement of the process or practical application of the idea.
“It’s a unique case where we found the solution before the problem,” says Pourtaheri. So they started proposing ways to use it. When they approached their current adviser, Mark Kester, co-director of the NanoSTAR Institute of the University of Virginia, he knew they were on to something.
One of their ideas was to use the bioparticles for more effective or targeted delivery of drugs, but medical research on that scale is a tall order for anyone, nonetheless undergraduates. So Kester told them, “Let’s think of some easier end games here. Where are the low-hanging fruit?”
So they switched, literally, to low-hanging fruit.
Shakeel, Pourtaheri and their teammates engineered biological particles that break down pesticides on the surface of plants. Their initial tests of the pesticide cleanup are happening in Virginia vineyards.
Though the product is patent pending—so the details of the actual mechanism and design of it are limited—AgroSpheres work because of some tricky engineering, Kester explains.
Bacteria assemble the specific enzymes necessary to non-toxically degrade the pesticides into simple compounds—sugars, fats. But the team has managed to engineer these bacteria, which Kester affectionately refers to as “bugs,” to churn out this enzyme cocktail in droves.
“What we've gotten the bug to do is not only make the biological enzyme but to actually put it into a ‘candy-coated’ shell that protects it,” he explains. Of particular importance, is that the bacteria do this without including any of their own genetic material. This means that the team can separate out the enzymes and spray these biological “M&Ms” directly on the plants pre-harvest without worry of contamination or bacterial replication.
The idea draws from the concept of “natural attenuation,” or containing the contaminated region and allowing natural processes—like bacterial degradation—to degrade the toxic compounds into benign components. But natural attenuation often takes weeks or months, and the AgroSpheres team claims to be able to concentrate the active enzymes to dramatically reduce the timeline for this process.
In the last year, their team has grown to include a total of five highly motivated students at UVA. Three are in their last year of school, with two having graduated this past spring. “You can have a great idea, but if you don’t have an incredible team it will fail,” says Pourtaheri.
The product has a long way to go before it makes it to market and must be extensively tested to ensure the claims of nontoxicity and environmental safety hold at a commercial scales. Even so, the team members all resoundingly agree that they plan to continue to pursue the research.
The researchers have tested the idea in the lab and are now running trials in vineyards and greenhouses to figure out the efficacy of the method and how long it takes the enzymes themselves to degrade. In cooperation with U.S. regulatory agencies, including the EPA, USDA and FDA, they are working to scale up the process to make it feasible for industrial-scale applications.
They hope to improve the design of the bioparticles, making them better and more efficient, explains Joe Frank, who leads research and development for the company, established in March, and is in his last year of school at UVA. They’re also hoping to expand to other applications, including the breakdown of other potentially hazardous compounds.
On stage, Dougherty asked the duo what happens after the win.
“We've got a meeting in D.C. with an [Intellectual Property] attorney at 2:30,” Shakeel says, glancing down at his watch before laughing.