The Rolosense, and its application as a chemical sensor, was developed in the lab of Emory chemist Khalid Salaita by his students Aaron Blanchard and Kevin Yehl. Blanchard is a PhD student in Emory’s Laney Graduate School and the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory, while Yehl recently received his PhD in chemistry from Emory.
The Rolosense is the biological equivalent of the invention of the wheel for the field of DNA machines. “It’s a completely new approach at using DNA motors for sensing and diagnostics,” Yehl says. “We now hope to keep broadening the scope of the technology and really prove it out in the field.”
The Rolosense is 1,000 times faster than other synthetic DNA motors. Its speed, which is powered by ribonuclease H, means a simple smart phone microscope can capture its motion through video.
Yehl and Blanchard were one of six teams of graduate students that competed in early November in the finals at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. The Collegiate Inventors Competition is considered the foremost program in the country encouraging invention and creativity in undergraduate and graduate students. The entries of the elite student teams represent the most promising inventions from U.S. universities.
The judges included inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, officials from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and scientists from the global healthcare firm AbbVie.
“It was really cool to meet students from the other teams, and also the judges, to get their feedback,” Yehl says.
His main takeaway message: Keep on inventing.
Yehl is taking that advice to heart. In his new position as a post-doctoral associate in a synthetic biology lab at MIT, he’s now working on novel therapeutics to target drug resistant bacteria.
Blanchard agrees that a highlight of the competition was networking with the other competitors and the judges. “Several of the judges encouraged me to focus on areas of research that I’m passionate about, and not just choose things to pad my resume,” he says. “The judges are inventors themselves and, in some cases, they’ve had an impact on millions of people, so their input is important to me. I really took a lot away from the competition besides a bronze medal.”
The National Inventors Hall of Fame does outreach around the country. Blanchard says he hopes to get involved in future outreach projects in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. “It’s an amazing city,” he says, because it’s in the United States but is predominantly Hispanic. You encounter many different types of people and that helps drive adaptability and creativity. Unfortunately, it’s also geographically and culturally isolated so it’s harder for students to obtain exposure to scientific research. El Paso produces some great minds with great potential to make a difference in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. I think it’s important to give kids there more exposure to STEM fields so they have an idea of the possibilities.”
Meanwhile, Blanchard and Yehl will continue developing the Rolosense with Salaita.
“We have this phenomenal technology that can make a difference in the world and we want to keep moving forward with it,” Blanchard says.
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