Agricultural and biological engineering research advances presidential initiative to enrich U.S. bioeconomy

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
5 min readDec 19, 2023
Development of field-deployable biosensors: a student using a sous vide cooker to conduct cutting-edge molecular testing (background) and schematic overview of the test being used for bovine respiratory disease (foreground). (Purdue Agricultural Communications photo/Tom Campbell)

Mohit Verma, PhD, an associate professor in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, is pioneering a trend with national and global import. At The Verma Lab, he’s leading research to develop field-deployable biosensors for One Health: better health of plants, animals, humans, and the environment.

This work supports the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, which President Joe Biden announced in an executive order last year. The wide-ranging initiative aims to use biotechnology to, in the words of a White House fact sheet, “lower prices, create good jobs, strengthen supply chains, improve health outcomes, and reduce carbon emissions.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has committed to play a vital role “by providing tools, resources, and scientific research to ensure American farmers and producers remain globally competitive.” Verma sat down with Purdue Engineering Review to comment on the presidential initiative and his lab’s research.

What is the significance of the presidential initiative?

The initiative takes a systemwide look at ways to enhance the U.S. bioeconomy, which is a strength of our nation in the global economy. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of biotechnology in saving lives through advanced diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccination, but healthcare is only one prominent example of the application of biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The initiative focuses on enhancing the bioeconomy broadly by looking at additional sectors, encompassing challenges in “climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” The federal government is engaging a thread of biotechnology throughout the various institutions that tackle these problems, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), USDA, Department of Commerce, and Department of Defense (DOD). This collaboration could lead to a flourishing and secure U.S. bioeconomy and allow our country to maintain global leadership in the field.

What are the initiative’s key provisions?

Major elements include: increasing and coordinating investment in biotechnology and biomanufacturing across multiple agencies, improving biological data collection and maintenance to ensure security, improving the pace at which new biological products are scaled up by advancing prototyping and biomanufacturing, boosting the market for biological products, developing an advanced workforce trained in biotechnology and biomanufacturing, measuring the bioeconomy to guide policy decisions, enhancing security measures for biological threats, and creating a framework for working with international partners.

How is the initiative affecting, and augmenting, the work being done at ABE?

Purdue’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) is diverse, conducting research ranging from developing new biotechnologies to analyzing the implementation of these technologies in the environment. Thus, the federal initiative supports many research and development efforts underway at ABE. Our department spans most of the challenges the initiative targets, such as those regarding energy, food security, healthcare, agriculture, and climate change. The initiative can help drive these activities and potentially accelerate their translation, meaning they could benefit U.S. and global populations sooner.

Why are agricultural and biological engineering so vital to the bioeconomy?

We use tools from biology to tackle issues in agriculture, sustainability and health. ABE innovations have helped improve agricultural yields from both plants and animals. They have helped develop methods for creating alternative sources of foods and alternative uses of waste products from bioprocessing. Our researchers also have developed tools for food safety enhancement and for early detection of diseases in plants and animals. All these innovations have advanced the bioeconomy.

What does ABE emphasize around research, practice and education?

ABE’s key areas of research are agricultural systems, safety and health, biological engineering, data science and digital agriculture, environmental and natural resources, food, pharmaceutical and biological process engineering, and machine systems engineering. Many of these areas relate directly to the U.S. initiative. Education and training are crucial — ABE students get exposed to new concepts through their courses and implement them through their labs and experiential learning. In addition, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduate researchers work closely with faculty on cutting-edge research in the fields mentioned above.

How about your own research? What are you looking into?

My research focuses on developing physical and conceptual tools for studying and manipulating microbial systems. Examples of these tools include biosensors, analytical devices, and in vitro models. My research group has applied them to address critical problems, such as the losses encountered through bovine respiratory diseases (a U.S. economic burden of almost $1 billion annually), African swine fever (“the biggest global animal disease outbreak of our generation”), and COVID-19 diagnostics. The biosensors we develop use molecular biology to detect nucleic acids in a timely manner. They can be utilized in the field and provide a rapid response in less than an hour in a colorimetric format (in which a colored reagent helps ascertain biochemical composition).

An example of a device that can test for infectious pathogens in the field and provide a colorimetric result. Red indicates a negative result, and yellow indicates a positive result. (Purdue Agricultural Communications photo/Tom Campbell)

These approaches enable the probing of microbial systems more quickly than what currently is possible with lab-based approaches. A key innovation in our work is the use of paper-based microfluidics for building biosensors, enabling these devices to be scaled up rapidly and applied to various targets (and thus, problems). Another example is the development of analytical tools that use spectroscopy (e.g., Raman spectroscopy) combined with machine learning algorithms to characterize biological samples of antibodies or vaccines. Such process analytical tools have the potential to improve the speed at which biomanufactured products could be released because they can provide real-time results instead of waiting for offline lab-based analyses.

How do you see the future for agricultural and biological engineering?

I envision that agricultural and biological engineering technologies and discoveries will be rapidly impactful. Instead of it taking decades to translate a finding from the lab to the real world, we will be able to do so in years, months or even weeks. Enabling this impact will require significant investment, and coordination of the investment so that it can focus on efforts like rapid prototyping and scale-up — an emphasis area of the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative. We already have seen examples of this transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, when diagnostics were available in several weeks and vaccines were available in months (instead of years). I also anticipate similar advancements in other fields, including agriculture, energy, and the environment.

Professor Mohit Verma holds a prototype for a low-cost test to detect SARS-CoV-2 in animals. (Purdue Agricultural Communications photo/Tom Campbell)

--

--