One Small Step for DNA, One Giant Leap for Art: Ottoleo Kuter-Arnebeck
While it may be hard to believe that blood glucose monitors and a project that involves sending a capsule of DNA to the moon have anything in common, CIT alumnus Ottoleo Kuter-Arnebeck's current research relates directly to both. Kuter-Arnebeck, who received his bachelor's in mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, is now working toward his Ph.D. at McGill University. He is still involved with CMU through the Moon Arts Group, whose goal is to place art on the moon that will further human culture in space and cause us to reflect on our responsibilities to others on our own planet.
Kuter-Arnebeck's work for the group requires creating a small capsule in which a fluid containing DNA can flow, and placing this capsule safely on the moon. His thesis research at McGill provides the perfect vehicle for this liquid: hollow microcantilever beams, which are, when simplified to their most basic structure, exceptionally tiny pipes.
"The design requirements are so similar," he says. "For both, I have to make something small and hollow, and I need it to contain a fluid with a small biological substance in it."
His research about microcantilevers is also essential on earth, largely in the medical and scientific fields. The beams may function as a new technology in the field of biosensors, the most common of which are blood glucose monitors. Biosensors are used to identify particles in a liquid, such as glucose levels in blood, pollutants in river water, or even antibiotics in certain foods.
How some biosensors identify particles is similar to how a veterinarian may determine a cat's weight. She weighs the cat's carrier with the cat in it, and then weighs the carrier by itself, and the difference is her patient's weight.
The microcantilever-based biosensors work in an opposite fashion. Let's say scientists already know the mass of a number of cats, but they don't know which one is in a particular carrier. By measuring the mass of both cat and carrier, subtracting the carrier's weight, and referencing a library of masses, they can figure out which cat is inside.
"Say there is a little particle in the fluid flowing through the beam," Kuter-Arnebeck explains. "As it moves along the cantilever, the particle adds extra mass to the beam. That extra mass changes the way that the beam vibrates, and so if you can detect that change in vibration, you can correlate it to that added mass, and determine what the particle mass is with a high degree of sensitivity."
Kuter-Arnebeck is trying to improve the precision of these beams so that scientists can tell similararly-sized particles apart. He says that the sensitivity of current microcantilever biosensors are still far from where they could be. By studying energy losses in the vibration of these hollow microbeams, he intends to determine innovative design approaches that he hopes will make the detection technique more exact. He will then use this research for his work with the Moon Arts Group, which is collaborating with the CMU robotics team to compete in 2013 for the Google Lunar X Prize.
Kuter-Arnebeck became involved with the CMU group though his connection with Lowry Burgess, a professor in the College of Fine Arts who knew about his interest in the micronano world. Burgess and Kuter-Arnebeck both felt that there may never be a more appropriate time to experiment with micronano art, considering how expensive it is to send something large to the moon.
He intends to make the capsule aesthetically pleasing by designing it as a circle, with the working idea that the DNA will be held in a continuous circuit shaped like a spiral. In doing so, he has been inspired by the creative and imaginative approaches of the art world, and has consequently come up with innovative ideas.
"I think of the most crazy ways to test my structure, and discover they are actually realizable, but that no one has ever thought of them because they weren't traditional approaches to issues," he says. "The people who have gone into this micronano world came from a traditional, macroengineering world, but so many different things are available and possible at the micronano world, you need new approaches to make scientific progress."
So why is he including DNA in the capsule instead of simply making it beautiful? He explains that it is part of the meaning of the art: DNA can communicate a vast amount of information.
"What's the smallest thing from earth that we can send that has some meaning, that has a message in it?" he asks. "It's DNA. DNA is kind of like a history book recording the changes in life on earth, and how things are related, and when certain things became unrelated."
While he has not selected what DNA will be in the capsule just yet, his colleague Carolina Ramos, who is involved with collecting the DNA, has decided what lens she will use when deciding.
"Her idea is to not only consider what species the DNA is from, but also where the DNA comes from geographically," says Kuter-Arnebeck. "The environment has an impact on how organisms live–there's a symbiotic relationship. If you take organisms from different locations, you can see these networks, and how life is interacting with other life."
He admits that, while he will be very satisfied if he is able to accomplish the challenging task he's set out for himself, he likes the idea that the capsule will be found in the future.
"The information I would like to relate to whoever finds it is that the earth has all these lifeforms. These lifeforms look so distinct, and there are so many different things happening here in so many unique places. But, if you look at the organisms' instruction manuals, you'll see that they're all pretty similar—you'll see how very different lives have influenced each other to make even more different lives."