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With $25 million grant, NSF funds center to investigate the creation of biological machines

Headquartered at MIT, the new initiative aims to dramatically advance research in complex biological systems and engage underrepresented minority groups
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The National Science Foundation has awarded $25 million to establish the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems Center (EBICS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Part of the NSF’s Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program, the new center will have its headquarters at MIT, with strong partnerships with UIUC and Georgia Tech. The center’s objectives are to dramatically advance research in complex biological systems, create new educational programs based on this research and demonstrate leadership in its involvement of groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering.

The center’s research activities will take place at the three partner schools, as well as at a number of other minority-serving institutions. Collectively, they will help create the knowledge, tools and technologies to “create highly sophisticated, ‘programmed,’ multi-cell engineered biological systems or machines,” said Roger Kamm, MIT’s Germeshausen Professor of Mechanical and Biological Engineering and the center’s founding director.

To reach this goal, the center’s research program has three components of increasing complexity, plus an enabling technologies thrust, said Kamm. Working first to better understand the individual properties and mechanisms of individual cells and cell types, then the interactive, collective behaviors of cell clusters, EBICS researchers will then create simple cellular machines or factories that perform specific functions. “Ultimately, we envision being able to create biological modules — sensors, processors, actuators — that can be assembled in various ways to produce different capabilities,” Kamm said. “If successful, this will open up an entirely new field of research with wide-ranging implications, ranging from regenerative medicine to developmental biology.”

The educational effort of EBICS will consist of a two-track, integrated graduate program for engineers to learn biological science, and for biologists to learn engineering methods. Directed by K. Jimmy Hsia, professor of mechanical science and engineering and associate dean of the Graduate College at UIUC, the center will coordinate educational offerings and programming across a teaching consortium of eight U.S. universities and several international institutions. “EBICS offers the opportunity to create a truly innovative, transformative approach to interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate education,” said Hsia. “The impact of such an approach is multiplied beyond the three primary institutions by the proposed teaching consortium. The center’s educational programs aim at producing the next generation of research and education leaders who are truly knowledgeable in both biology and engineering, and who will potentially shape how research and education are done in this new field.”

The center’s diversity objectives will overlay its research and educational efforts, and will be overseen by Robert M. Nerem, Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Institute Professor at Georgia Tech. The center will engage faculty from minority-serving institutions on research projects, and work closely with existing outreach and recruitment programs at all partner institutions to ensure the broadest range of participation in all of its programs. “For the U.S. to be competitive globally in the 21st, century it must leverage the inherent strength of its diverse population,” said Nerem. “The more diverse a science and engineering team is, the more likely will the advances in the technology created be truly innovative.”

EBICS has a number of critical alliances that will enhance its activities. To attract a diverse community of researchers and educators, EBICS has formed strategic partnerships with several minority-serving institutions, including UC Merced, CUNY, and a consortium of Atlanta universities. The center will also draw on the Global Enterprise for MicroMechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4), an international collaboration founded in 2005 by Subra Suresh, dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering at MIT, and currently directed by Kamm. Educational activities will encompass an NSF-funded GEM4 Summer School series as well as a graduate teaching consortium that will bring in five additional U.S. universities and several international ones. 

“This grant and this new center represent a remarkable investment in one of the most exciting growth areas at the intersections of modern engineering and biology,” said Suresh. “It also represents a profound commitment to ensuring that this knowledge is created and shared across a very wide community — and that it will endure. The students and researchers who participate in these programs will, I have no doubt, shape the future of biological science and engineering on a global scale.”

EBICS is one of five new NSF Science and Technology Center awards as a result of a recent, merit-based competition. “These new STCs will involve world-class teams of researchers and educators, integrate learning and discovery in innovative ways, tackle complex problems that require the long-term support afforded by this program, and lead to the development of new technologies with significant impact well into the future," said NSF Director Arden L. Bement.

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