Virginia Tech biologist is a finalist in the $10 million XPRIZE Rainforest competition
For College of Science Assistant Professor Julie Allen and her teammates on Team Waponi, winning the grand prize is secondary to preserving the planet’s vanishing rainforest ecosystem.
Next June, Julie Allen and a team of more than 30 researchers who call themselves “Team Waponi” will be dropped “Survivor”-style into a remote part of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
They will have just 24 hours to survey the biodiversity of 100 hectares — 247 acres — of rainforest and produce real-time insights within another 48 hours to win the competition. The winning team must develop the fastest, most comprehensive, and most efficient automated technologies for identifying species at every level of the rainforest, from canopy to floor.
For Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, the goal is not so much to claim the $10 million prize as to help revolutionize how we study and preserve the rainforest.
“We are losing rainforest every minute to human activity,” she said. “The vast level of biodiversity is not known, and these forests are disappearing before we can even identify them. The idea behind the XPRIZE is to find a way to measure and show the economic value of keeping the rainforest intact.”
XPRIZE Rainforest is one of several competitions sponsored by the XPRIZE Foundation to incentivize collaboration by world-leading experts on solving humanity’s biggest problems. XPRIZE judges winnowed the initial 300 entrants down to 15 semifinalist teams for the June semifinals in Singapore. Now, just six teams remain to face off in the finals.
“I’m running on full adrenaline right now,” Allen said. “We won’t know where we’re going in the rainforest until the day of the competition. They will likely helicopter us into a random plot in Brazil.”
“Waponi” is a term meaning “hi,” “what’s up,” “good,” or “cool,” from the Waorani tribe, who are longtime residents and guardians of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The XPRIZE Waponi team is composed of experts in a variety of fields, including anthropology, biology, chemistry, computer science, ecology, engineering, and robotics, along with members of Local amazon indigenous communities.
The team’s main technology is a device called the Limelight, which uses a drone to drop a sample collection raft into the rainforest canopy. Instruments on the raft record sounds and images, capture insects, and gather environmental DNA from the air, soil, and water. Machine learning technology and field DNA sequencing, along with other streams of data coming from the drones, will help to identify species.
“We have to invent a field lab where we’ll do all sequencing at the end of the rainy season in lowland Amazonia,” Allen said. “We’ll be dealing with rain, heat, and humidity. A lot of our machines can’t get too hot – they’ll break. We’re trying to ensure we have a system that is field ready.”
Allen joined Virginia Tech from the University of Nevada, Reno, this year and is currently setting up her lab and preparing to teach a bioinformatics course in the spring.
As the leader for Team Waponi’s DNA and bioinformatics group, she is developing DNA sequencing technology to rapidly identify species through environmental DNA in the water, soil, and air, and from insect tissue samples collected by drones in the forest.
“What I’ll be doing in my lab over the next semester is testing more DNA protocols to increase our speed for sequencing and analyzing the DNA we collect at the site,” Allen said. “I am hoping to find the support to fund students in paid internships and undergraduate research related to XPRIZE Rainforest.”
Allen said Team Waponi has three distinct advantages going into the competition: insect expertise, indigenous knowledge, and expert drone technology. Several team members are scientists who specialize in insects, which are the most biodiverse animal organism in the forest. Allen herself is both an evolutionary biologist who studies insects and a bioinformatician who analyzes biological data to help answer questions about ecology.
“We are known for being the insect team,” she said. “We expect to have thousands and thousands of insects coming at us, including new species we’ve never seen before. Insects are important stewards of the ecosystem and also great indicators of changes and declines in ecosystem health. When insects go away, everything goes away.”
Team Waponi also includes members of local amazonian communities, who have strong ties to the land and expertise in the local ecosystem, as paid researchers and advisors.
“Our team works to engage Indigenous and local communities as part of a collaborative and ongoing, sustainable effort to collect data to understand what the rainforest is telling us,” she said. “Our Team Waponi leader [Professor Tom Walla from Colorado Mesa University] has been working alongside local communities in Ecuador for over 20 years.”
Allen said that win or lose, the team has already been successful in developing new technologies to advance species detection and identification. She and other members of Team Waponi plan to start a company that commercializes their XPRIZE work and contributes to global understanding of the importance of biodiversity.
“This competition is allowing me to take all the work and goals from my entire career and push them forward in a way that will have a rapid and significant impact,” she said. “It’s overwhelming and just awesome to be a part of this.”