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Northwestern and MIT Receive Funding from Army’s Synthetic Biology Center

Two projects focus on new materials and cell engineering

Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recognized leaders in the growing field of synthetic biology, recently received significant grant awards from the Army for basic research projects involving large interdisciplinary teams. These awards are part of the Army’s recently established basic research center that applies synthetic biology to design advanced materials and to engineer environmental microbial communities. 

Clockwise from top left: Michael Jewett, Nathan Gianneschi, Neha Kamat, Julius Lucks

One team, led by Northwestern, focuses on engineered biological materials. A second team, led by MIT, focuses on cell engineering.

The center also includes awards focused on materials and cellular engineering supporting investigators at the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Colorado State University, and Tufts University. All of the funded projects emphasize predictive design, a technique used to predict future behavior. 

The Northwestern-led project is titled “The Center for Predictive Materials Design (PreMaDe).” This team includes Northwestern Engineering’s Michael Jewett (principal investigator), Nathan Gianneschi, Neha Kamat, Julius Lucks, and Danielle Tullman-Ercek, as well as researchers from Johns Hopkins University, MIT, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Texas at Austin. 

The research team will combine synthetic biology and materials expertise with engineering and computational modeling strengths to create new biomaterials with precise control over their functional properties. Potential applications of such materials include electronic circuitry for wearable electronics, optical materials that dynamically sense and respond to their environment, and rugged cell-free materials with embedded sensing and actuation functions for molecular diagnostics.

Danielle Tullman-Ercek

“Synthetic biology has the potential to transform the way materials are made for the Army and Department of Defense,” said Tullman-Ercek, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and a member of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology.

“These awards are important because they allow us to build on the momentum and historic strengths at Northwestern by fostering the coupling of synthetic biology and materials,” Tullman-Ercek added.

The MIT-led team project is titled “CHARMME: Center for Harnessing Microbiota from Military Environments.” MIT’s Christopher Voigt is the principal investigator, and the research team includes Jewett. In addition to MIT and Northwestern, CHARMME team members come from Columbia University, University of Colorado Boulder, Kansas State University, University of Southern Mississippi, and California Institute of Technology. Long-lived microbes are ever-present and can be problematic; they can be found on and within vehicles, pieces of equipment and infrastructure. This team will develop foundational technologies to recover, manipulate and replace microbes in military-relevant environments.

Together, all the funded projects aim to increase the Army’s intellectual capacity in synthetic biology and improve the relationship between the Army Science and Technology Enterprise and the broader synthetic biology research community. The center will also support new domestic manufacturing capabilities and training a modern STEM-educated workforce.