NSF announces new Science and Technology Center

Washington University-Penn partnership will investigate biology’s mechanics

The NSF has added a collaboration between Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania to its list of Science and Technology Centers. The majority of the center's work will take place in Green Hall.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has added a newly formed collaboration between Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania to its list of Science and Technology Centers (STC). The center and its collaborative efforts will be supported by a $23.6 million grant from the NSF.

“This award from the National Science Foundation reflects outstanding faculty achievement at Washington University in St. Louis,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “As the university advances its commitment to groundbreaking, high-impact research, winning the new Science and Technology Center is a major accomplishment.”

The Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB) will bring together a consortium of researchers including engineers, biologists and biophysicists. The group’s mission: identify and harness the mechanical functions of both plants and animals at the cellular level. Mechanical force is a critical component of all biological systems, allowing cells to divide, migrate, adapt and differentiate. It is hoped that this deeper dive into how single cells function will transform both medicine and plant science.

“The STC grant represents significant support from the National Science Foundation for a large-scale, complex research undertaking,” said Dedric Carter, vice chancellor for operations & tech transfer at Washington University. Carter, a former senior adviser for strategic initiatives at the NSF, participated as part of Washington University senior leadership during the site visit process.

“This is a remarkable opportunity for Washington University to advance its international leadership in research and innovation in a potentially transformative area,” Carter said. “We look forward to the great work that will likely emerge from this new center.”

Guy Genin
Guy Genin

“Mechanobiology has incredible potential,” said Guy Genin, professor of mechanical engineering & materials science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and principal investigator of Washington University’s portion of the grant. “It could change the way we view many of the world’s most complex questions and issues.

“For the field to fully realize its enormous potential, a large commitment and scope of study is needed,” Genin said. “We are most grateful for the National Science Foundation’s support. Being named an STC is a prestigious distinction reserved for sweeping research projects that have the power to change lives. We’re ready to get to work.”

Every plant and animal living today evolved from a single-celled organism. The Washington University-Penn STC will investigate the mechanics at work on the singular cell level, and examine how the cell reacts to electrical and mechanical forces. The hope is that by better understanding the processes in place and at play, cellular “override switches” will be developed that lead to a host of new bio-inspired developments, including disease prevention and more efficient crop practices.

“The possible advances that could be realized with this research team and our collaborators are nearly limitless. If we can override cellular mechanical behavior, we could stop cancer cells from metastasizing,” Genin said. “We could also improve our bodies’ system functions, and vastly change the way we approach injuries, with the potential to speed up rehab.”

“Changing plants’ cellular behavior could allow us to develop hardier crops and more sustainable growing methods, transforming the ways that we feed people,” said Lucia Strader, assistant professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, who is co-directing the research. “However, to realize the true potential of this field, we need to move from individual innovations to collaborative leadership. We’re thrilled to be part of that transition via the new STC.”

Rounding out the Washington University team are Marcus Foston, assistant professor, and Barbara Pickard, professor emerita of biology, both in the School of Engineering & Applied Science; and Ram Dixit, associate professor of biology; Elizabeth Haswell, associate professor of biology; and Anders Carlsson, professor of physics, all in Arts & Sciences.

In addition to scientists from Washington University and Penn, a diverse group of researchers from Alabama State University, Boston University, Bryn Mawr College, the University of Texas and the New Jersey Institute of Technology will also join in the effort.

“This center will bring together an unprecedented set of leading experts and cutting-edge facilities,” said Aaron Bobick, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, who facilitated planning for the university and coordinated with his long-time colleague Vijay Kumar, dean of engineering at Penn. “This grant positions Washington University and our partners to make rapid and transformative progress in one of the university’s key areas of international leadership.”

The STC consortium represents investigators and laboratories that are leading the field in areas related to mechanobiology and will focus on three specific areas related to cell mechanics: the individual molecules that generate and respond to force; the larger extracellular and support structures that help determine cellular behavior; and novel materials and micro-engineering physiologic systems.

These selected areas of focus build upon the research expertise available in the team members’ laboratories, and the capabilities that will be developed by bringing the STC team together. Four research projects are planned to illustrate how the STC will integrate its focus areas to address the most important research questions in the field of mechanobiology. Those projects are expected to run the full range of size and scope: from single molecule experiments on up to whole organisms, with elapsed time stretching from milliseconds to months.

Harnessing the full potential of these results will involve a series of innovative new modeling and experimental techniques, and Dixit has the role of ensuring that information is distributed broadly and creatively across industry and academia, and of fostering innovation in intellectual property.

“The resources for innovation and entrepreneurship at Washington University are truly exceptional,” Dixit said. “Our office of technology management had been creative and effective in coordinating with similar offices at Penn and our other partner institutions to streamline our efforts to make a maximal impact. We have tremendous opportunity to make a real and lasting impact through this work.”

The STC also will include a teaching component, with consortium members training students in the field of engineering mechanobiology, and preparing them for careers as innovative leaders, who are ready to collaborate in order to solve society’s biggest problems.

“While we are thrilled to assemble this all-star team to investigate the mechanics of cells, everyone involved in the STC is also very much looking forward to the mentorship piece of this project,” Genin said. “It is of vital importance to instruct and nurture younger scientists as we embark on this complex, far-reaching work.”

“This new center will link together the research and teaching efforts at Washington University with those at the partner institutions in innovative ways that we have never tried before, including opening up the university’s cutting-edge facilities and graduate catalog to the CEMB’s faculty and students at all partner institutions,” said Provost Holden Thorp. “CEMB will be a vital part of our university’s innovation ecosystem, and will lengthen the leverage of many of our key international strengths in engineering and life sciences.”