MURI grants target controlled propagation of signals in nanostructures, cell-based sensors

(Nanowerk News) Rice University scientists are set to lead one research team and are part of a second among the 23 awards announced by the Department of Defense (DOD) under its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program. The DOD grants total $155 million.
Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of Chemistry, Bioengineering and Physics and Astronomy, is the principal investigator on a grant issued by the Army Research Office.
Halas will administer the five-year grant expected to be worth $6.25 million that will fund research at Rice, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota and Ohio State University.
The research will address the topic of "novel nanostructures for the controlled propagation of electromagnetic energy." Her group is investigating nanoparticles and nanoparticle-based complexes that can be designed to selectively transmit or block certain specific colors of light from the far-infrared to the ultraviolet with well-defined depths and line widths.
The ultimate goal is to develop coatings, paints or even aerosols that absorb or transmit light in a predesigned manner, at any region across much of the visible and infrared region of the spectrum. This basic idea could give rise to a range of technologies, from smart walls and windows to complex communications technologies that would be difficult if not impossible to detect.
"I am so pleased to be supported by the DOD to work with this extraordinarily talented group of scientists and engineers," Halas said. "This project creates an opportunity for us to greatly expand our research efforts in this area to include new, biocompatible materials and to develop new infrared technologies." Peter Nordlander, a Rice professor of physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer engineering, and Stephan Link, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering, are part of the project team.
Jeff Tabor, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is part of the second grant. Tabor, whose interest is in synthetic biology, will work with former mentor Christopher Voigt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and principal investigator on a project titled "Next-generation devices; model-guided discovery and optimization of cell-based sensors."
Tabor's lab at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative will take part in a grant that also includes Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota to develop a way to program biology to "attain non-natural functions" for the Office of Naval Research.
They will seek to make cells for industrial applications that can detect what Tabor called "unnatural signals, like ultraviolet light, infrared light, electromagnetic radiation and magnetic fields." He said the goal is to reprogram the DNA of bacteria to express sensors that detect particular wavelengths and perform signal processing, characterization and perhaps even logical functions.
Tabor, who was a postdoctoral researcher in Voigt's MIT lab, said his group will mine genetic databases for genes that can be used to program cells to sense the unnatural signals. "The long-term goal is to improve the robustness of engineered cellular circuits so they can be used in a wide variety of non-laboratory applications," he said.
Through in vitro "breadboarding" of cellular circuitry, the team will work toward building tunable, programmable synthetic sensors that reliably respond to light and magnetic fields in real environments.
The highly competitive MURI program "opens up entirely new areas of scientific inquiry and builds the foundation for future capabilities that will benefit our joint forces," said Zachary J. Lemnios, the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. "We are also employing new processes to share research results with our industry partners at a much earlier point to accelerate the transition of concepts from research to end-use products."
Rice is among 63 academic institutions that received MURI awards this year.
Source: By Mike Williams, Rice University
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