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Wyss Institute to form part of multidisciplinary effort on DoD award

Team will develop novel synthetic biology technology for creating micro-bio-robots that can communicate information on explosives, environmental conditions

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced today that it is part of a team of investigators who will be receiving a Department of Defense (DoD) award to pursue multidisciplinary research. The award is one of just 27 winning projects selected from a highly competitive field of 332 initial applicants.

Researchers on this winning project are being asked to develop a novel synthetic biology technology for creating micro-bio-robots that can detect and communicate information about explosives and toxins, aswell as various environmental conditions, such as temperature and light.

The five-year project comprises three separate programs. In one, investigators will create biological circuits that can program bacteria to act as sensors, in much the same way that a computer can be programmed to perform desired functions. Another effort will focus on development of a two-way communication system that can be incorporated into the organism to transmit and receive information, and finally, the entire system will be coupled to tiny robots that can function in a variety of extreme environments, including the deep sea.

The 27 awards, which are expected to total $191 million over five years, are being made through the DoD’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program. Most MURI efforts involve researchers from multiple academic institutions and academic departments. In contrast to traditional single-investigator awards, the MURI program can provide greater sustained support for the education and training of students pursuing advanced degrees in critical science and engineering fields.

“MURIs are an important vehicle for engaging the brightest researchers on ideas with major impact for the department,” said Zachary J. Lemnios, the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, in a statement from the DoD. “These projects constitute significant investments in multidisciplinary research with the potential for making rapid progress in cutting-edge science. DoD relies on such programs, in line with our S&T (Science and Technology) priorities, to pave the way for revolutionary breakthroughs supporting tomorrow’s warfighter.”

Boston University, under the direction of James J. Collins, Ph.D., who is a Wyss Institute core faculty member and a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, will be the primary investigative institute. The Wyss Institute’s subcontract will be led by core faculty members George Church, Ph.D., and Pamela Silver, Ph.D. Also on the overall project team are researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Collins is a founder of the new field of synthetic biology, an area of research that combines science and engineering to construct new biological circuits that can reprogram organisms, particularly bacteria, to perform desired tasks, much like we program computers now.

Church and Silver will both be involved in designing, developing, and fine tuning the programmable bacteria. At the Wyss, Church oversees the directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new tools with applications in regenerative medicine and bioenergy. Silver focuses on building cell-based machines, designing novel therapeutics, and reengineering photosynthetic bacteria to produce hydrogen and other fuels.

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