Megan Valentine, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), has been awarded a $1.8 million collaborative grant by the National Science Foundation to design and create next-generation materials inspired and empowered by biological cells. Valentine will be working alongside a team of physicists, biologists and engineers. Led by Rae Robertson-Anderson, a professor of physics and biophysics at the University of San Diego, the team also includes researchers from Syracuse University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.
The goal of the collaboration is to create self-directed, programmable and reconfigurable materials, using biological building blocks including proteins and cells, capable of producing force and motion. This research could pave the way for future materials applications ranging from self-propulsive materials to programmable micro-robotics, wound healing and dynamic prosthetics.
“This project offers an exciting opportunity to pair my group’s expertise in biomaterials and polymer mechanics with advances in synthetic biology to create classes of materials capable of autonomous sensing and actuation,” said Valentine. Her research group focuses on how forces are generated and transmitted in living materials, how these forces control cellular outcomes and how to capture the extraordinary features of living systems in manmade materials.
“We are thrilled to be given the opportunity to pursue this line of research that has the power to really push the frontiers of materials research beyond the current state-of-the-art,” Robertson-Anderson said. “We will capitalize on the design principles of biological systems to engineer, investigate and make publicly available prototypical ‘biotic-abiotic materials’ that combine biological and commercial components to morph, move and do work without human intervention.”
The four-year grant will also allow for undergraduates at each partner university to gain hands-on collaborative research experience, mentoring and professional development opportunities. At the end of the project, the team will have built the framework for their materials design concept, including a small prototype, that can help others to advance futuristic materials to accomplish the many processes that living systems already perform seamlessly.