Keck Foundation supports research at the edge

August 9, 1999

The Initiative for the Design of Bio-Inspired Materials, a research team comprised of University of Chicago biologists, chemists, and physicists with common interests, received a $2-million two-year grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, California to explore a new direction in science--the creation of new physical materials based on biological templates.

The goal is to exploit the complexity and diversity found in biological systems in order to develop and fabricate new physical structures and functional materials. At the same time, the researchers hope to use the advanced techniques developed for working with sub-microscopic physical structures to gain a new measure of control over biological processes.

"We are extraordinarily pleased and encouraged by the magnanimous support of the Keck Foundation for this innovative project," said Norbert Scherer, PhD, professor of chemistry and the James Frank Institute, co-director of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics (IBD) and principal investigator of the project.

"There is little federal funding for research on this extreme frontier of science because the work is high risk and does not fit into the existing program niches of the funding agencies," added Scherer. "Furthermore, the concept for the project originated in the multi-disciplinary culture of the IBD, representing a model for other cross-disciplinary research."

Scherer will coordinate the interaction of research teams led by four co-investigators: David Grier, PhD, and Heinrich Jaeger, PhD, both associate professors of physics at the James Franck Institute; Milan Mrksich, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry; and Susan Lindquist, PhD, professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and an investigator in the University's Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"The questions we want to ask about science today are so complex that they require the collaboration of biologists, physicists, and chemists to answer them," said Lindquist. "It's at the boundaries of the sciences--the spaces in between the formal disciplines--that the most interesting and innovative research is going on today."

The bio-inspired materials investigators will initially focus on the microscopic world of amyloid fibers (such as the proteins believed to play a fundamental role in Alzheimer's disease) in the hope that these tiny interwoven strings may serve as templates for the creation of future materials. Scientists already have considerable familiarity with--and some control over--the growth of these fibrous plaques, enabling them to direct the fibers to grow in specific patterns.

The discoveries that result from this unusual bio-chemo-physical research could pave the way for practical applications, say the researchers, such as a new class of nano-computer that would use "bio-templated" circuits to transport electrons or photons--or as the basis for powerful optical-signal processing tools that will themselves interact with living systems.

This research project is one of the first major collaborative programs to emerge from recent efforts at the University to bring together scientists working on the edges of overlapping disciplines, as embodied in the creation of the IBD. Another concrete manifestation of this trend is the plan to construct a $110-million, more than 180,000 net square-foot facility, which will provide new research space for investigators interested in the interactions between the biological and physical sciences.

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