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ASU receives award to accelerate 'digital chemistry' research

Neal Woodbury
July 25, 2012

Arizona State University has received a $1 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) under a new interdisciplinary grant program called INSPIRE.

INSPIRE, which stands for Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education, was established to address some of the most complicated and pressing scientific problems that lie at the intersections of traditional disciplines.

“Due to the convergence of new technologies, it has now become possible to create completely artificial systems with chemical complexity approaching that of biological systems, but integrated with electronics and computational design," said Neal Woodbury, who will be leading the grant effort along with Biodesign Institute colleagues Stephen Albert Johnston, Hao Yan, and Stuart Linsday, as well as Colin Wraight from the University of Illinois.

Woodbury is co-director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Innovations in Medicine and a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The ASU team, led by Biodesign Institute researcher Neal Woodbury, will pursue research in “Digital Chemistry,” where scientists can build complex processes from small ‘bytes’ of single molecules hooked together in a precise pattern. Here, amino acids will be linked together to form peptides, small pieces of proteins, and these peptides will be used as the tethers to hold complexes of other biomolecules together.

“The complex chemical reactions that take place in us, and in all organisms, involve the orchestration of a tight, choreographed dance of molecules in time and space.  This ability to organize complex, dynamic systems at the molecular level is vital to life on Earth,” said Woodbury. “Now, we can envision a biomimetic approach to reimagining and redesigning complex chemistry and biochemistry, but with the added potential functionality of interfacing with our electronic world.”

Initially, the team will develop the conceptual framework and research tools to provide a proof-of-concept of their approach. They will focus on three research goals: to organize and optimize enzyme pathways using DNA nanostructures; remodel proteins involved in converting light to chemical energy in artificial photosynthetic reaction centers; and identifying cells and different stages of cell development to control their gene expression patterns through specific molecules.

All of these elements may eventually be used to develop molecular-scale devices that could be integrated with microelectronics to control complex biological systems.

Woodbury was just one of 11 recipients of the NSF INSPIRE award.

"INSPIRE is a great example of the vital role NSF plays in supporting highly innovative research and education projects at the intersections of traditional disciplines in science and engineering," said NSF Director Subra Suresh. "Through INSPIRE and other NSF programs, I encourage our nation's scientists and engineers to submit to NSF their most innovative ideas for interdisciplinary research."

Newly established for FY12, NSF created INSPIRE to fund interdisciplinary, potentially transformative research. Once fully implemented, INSPIRE will complement other NSF efforts with a suite of new, highly innovative NSF-wide activities and funding opportunities. INSPIRE awards are co-funded between the Office of Integrative Activities and other NSF offices and directorates. INSPIRE aims to widen the pool of prospective discoveries by supporting proposals that may be viewed as falling outside of other NSF programs and funding mechanisms.

The awards made under INSPIRE include research on resorbable electronics, modeling and optimization of DNA manufacturing processes, statistical mechanics of natural climate variability, wireless sensor networks in experimental biology research, and scalable toolkit for transformative astrophysics research.