Image 1 - Insights From Biological World To Inspire New Engineering Capabilities
September 30, 2011

Insights From Biological World To Inspire New Engineering Capabilities

Interdisciplinary teams to explore quietly powerful biological signals and the intersection between minds and machines

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) has announced 14 grants for the 2011 fiscal year, awarding nearly $28 million to 60 investigators at 23 institutions.

During the next four years, teams of researchers will pursue transformative, fundamental research in two emerging areas:  technologies that build on understanding of biological signaling and machines that can interact and cooperate with humans.

Results from this research promise to impact human health, the environment, energy, robotics and manufacturing.

Engineering New Technologies Based on Multicellular and Inter-kingdom Signaling (MIKS): The first set of EFRI research teams will investigate the chemical and mechanical signals that allow living organisms to engage with and respond to their environment at the cellular level. These signals often affect cellular development and behavior, and they can lead to complex interactions between populations of a species or even between species from different biological kingdoms. For example, biological signaling has been found to initiate the formation of biofilms and to regulate symbiotic relationships between species.

With recent advances in microfabrication, synthetic biology, optical sensing and spectroscopy, EFRI researchers will create new technologies to measure and characterize the molecular and cellular interactions that occur with signaling. They will construct novel engineered systems to understand signaling principles and to learn how to use signals for achieving particular results. Ultimately, the teams aim to create technologies that harness the power of biological signaling.

"These eight projects will examine different types of signaling in an array of organisms and environments, ranging from the microbes inhabiting termite guts to the embryonic cells of fruit flies," said Theresa Good, lead EFRI program officer for MIKS. "The results from these investigations could enable new biological energy sources and better protection for human health and the environment."

Mind, Machines, and Motor Control (M3C): The second set of EFRI research teams will pursue machines that can interact and cooperate seamlessly with humans. Current technologies draw upon only a small fraction of the sensory data available to the brain. The analytical processes and control algorithms that govern existing prosthetic devices and robots require human users to accommodate their technological limitations. In numerous ways, the interactive capabilities of machines have a long way to go before they can match those of healthy humans.

EFRI teams will study how the brain senses the physical world and the body's place in it, how it processes this information, and how it achieves rapid, complex, responsive and even improvisational movement of the body. Researchers will use their knowledge of brain activity to create devices that can interface directly and cooperatively with the human body. The overall goal is to design machines--whether prosthetics, rehabilitative machines or robots--that work as an intuitive extension of natural human activity.

"These six awards could launch great advances in robotics, manufacturing and healthcare," said lead EFRI program officer for M3C Radhakisan Baheti. "Engineers, computer scientists, biologists and doctors will undertake extensive collaboration to discover ways to improve quality of life for people with brain disease or injuries and for people who use prosthetics."

"The EFRI research teams will probe some profound aspects of the interface of biology and engineering," said Sohi Rastegar, director of EFRI. "If they are successful, the principles and theories uncovered in their investigations could unlock many technological opportunities."

The fiscal 2011 EFRI topics were developed in close collaboration with the NSF Directorates for Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences.

EFRI, established by the NSF Directorate for Engineering in 2007, seeks high-risk, interdisciplinary research that has the potential to transform engineering and other fields. The grants demonstrate the EFRI goal to inspire and enable researchers to expand the limits of knowledge.

Summaries of the eight EFRI projects on Engineering New Technologies Based on Multicellular and Inter-kingdom Signaling (MIKS) are found on the award announcement Web page.

Summaries of the six EFRI projects on Mind, Machines, and Motor Control (M3C) are found on the award announcement Web page.


Image 1: Microbes from three kingdoms live symbiotically within the lower termite gut, where they coordinate chemical processes that are beyond the capability of any one organism. The composition and function of the microbial community changes with even tiny variations in the physical and chemical habitat of the termite gut. A team at the University of Connecticut will investigate the changing capabilities of the termite gut community to break down various carbon sources, such as lignocelluloses, and its self-regulation through a complex signaling network. To do so, the researchers will systematically replicate micro-scale physical and chemical features of a lower termite gut using engineered microhabitats. By understanding microorganisms' signaling processes, it may be possible to manipulate microbial communities and harness their capabilities for chemical production on an industrial scale. Credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University,

Image 2: Epithelial cells are imaged on a custom strain array device developed to stretch cells for an EFRI project at Stanford University. This project will investigate mechanical interactions between cells that are instrumental to basic processes of life and yet remain poorly understood. In multicellular tissues, the effects of mechanical forces such as stress and strain are focused on junctions that connect the cells together. The team will create novel engineering devices to visualize and characterize how junctions between living cells change as force is applied. They will also use a new class of molecular force sensors to directly visualize the transmission of molecular-scale mechanical force through cell junctions. With these methods, devices and probes, this project aims to transform understanding of the thresholds and mechanisms for environmental adaptation and remodeling of multicellular systems. Credit: Joo Yong Sim, Nicolas Borghi, James Nelson and Beth Pruitt, Stanford University

Image 3: In a simulation of bacterial micro-colony growth and cell-cell communication, the cells are programmed to emit signaling molecules and respond to the concentration of those molecules by producing fluorescent proteins. Such behaviors could form the basis of a programmable developmental system for cells, in which single cells grow into complex patterns in a prescribed manner. The genetic implementation of such artificial development programs in actual cells is the goal of an EFRI project involving researchers at William Marsh Rice University and the University of Washington. Credit: Eric Klavins, University of Washington


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