Probing Cell Clusters to Investigate Creation of Biological Machines
While the behaviors of individual cells and the functions and properties of tissues and organs have been extensively studied, the complex interactions of cell clusters have not been examined in great detail. A new $25-million Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) Center to be operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Georgia Institute of Technology intends to change that. The EBICS Center — established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program — aims to 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.
“Ultimately, we envision being able to create biological modules — sensors, processors, actuators — that can be combined in various ways to produce different capabilities,” said Roger Kamm, Germeshausen Professor of Mechanical and Biological Engineering at MIT, and the Center’s founding director. “If we are successful, this will open up an entirely new field of research with wide-ranging implications, from regenerative medicine to developmental biology.”
Georgia Tech will receive more than $1.6 million per year to support the research and educational efforts in the EBICS Center. Georgia Tech’s participation in the Center will be administered through the Georgia Tech/Emory Center (GTEC) for Regenerative Medicine. Robert Nerem, who is an associate director of EBICS and the director of GTEC, will work closely with Kamm and the other associate directors to achieve the Center’s educational and research goals, and oversee its diversity objectives.
“Critical to the successful design of engineered cellular systems is a fundamental understanding of interactions between cells and their environment, their control by biochemical and mechanical cues, and the coordinated behavior of functional biological machines,” said Gang Bao, the Robert A. Milton Chair in Biomedical Engineering in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.
Bao will coordinate the Center’s four research areas, which include:
• Investigating how individual cells integrate the various biological, biochemical and physical cues from their environments to determine their ultimate states and biological behaviors.
• Determining the emergent behaviors and interactions of cell clusters, including the transition from single cell to multi-cell behavior, the nature of communication between cells, and how this leads to functional coordination among neighboring cells and cell populations.
• Creating and characterizing simple cellular machines that perform increasingly complex tasks, such as sensing, information processing, protein expression and transport.
• Developing enabling technologies to ensure the goals of the other three areas can be met.
The EBICS Center also 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 Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Institute Professor at Georgia Tech. “The more diverse a science and engineering team is, the more likely will the advances in the technology created be truly innovative.”
The Center also contains an educational component consisting of a two-track, integrated graduate program for engineers to learn biological science, and for biologists to learn engineering methods across an eight-school consortium.
“EBICS offers the opportunity to create a truly innovative, transformative approach to interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate education,” said the Center’s education coordinator K. Jimmy Hsia, professor of mechanical science and engineering and associate dean of graduate college at Illinois.
EBICS researchers also will work closely with members of the Global Enterprise for MicroMechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4) to expand upon the international collaborations and educational activities fostered by GEM4 in cell and molecular biomechanics and their implications for human diseases and molecular medicine, and from the specialized summer GEM4 training programs organized at different institutions under a separate grant from NSF.
The EBICS Center is one of five new NSF Science and Technology Center (STC) awards.
“These five 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.