NSF Science and Technology Center: Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems

NSF Proposal: 09-39511
Award Amount: $25,000,000
Start Date: September 15, 2010
End Date: August 31, 2015

The NSF Science and Technology Centers (STCs): Integrative Partnerships program supports innovative, potentially transformative, complex research and education projects that require large-scale, long-term funding.  Research at the STCs is conducted through partnerships among academic institutions, national laboratories, industrial organizations, and other public/private entities.

The STC on Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) will develop the science and technology needed to engineer clusters of living cells (also called biological machines) that have desired functionalities and can perform prescribed tasks. These machines will consist of sensing, information processing, actuation, protein expression, and transport elements that can be effectively combined to create functional units. It is envisioned that these biological machines will perform tasks such as processing systems that detect toxins in the environment and neutralize them; smart plants that sense and respond to the need for water and nutrients, surrogate organs that are used in place of animals to test new drugs; and biological factories that sequester CO2 in a continuous flow process.

Intellectual merit of the proposed STC lies in the realization of the field of engineered biological systems that seeks to understand how cell systems interact to produce coordinated, emergent behavior under the control of local micro-environmental cues consisting of biochemical factors and physical stimuli. Recently, much attention has focused on research into the creation of single-cell machines or factories. While such uni-cellular machines hold enormous promise, the potential impact of multi-cellular systems that incorporate populations of specialized cells assembled into a single integrated unit is far greater. New insights and understanding into cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions are critical to attaining this goal, and this will require new technological platforms to bridge molecular scale interactions with macroscale behavior of complex biological systems. The proposed research direction is truly transformative and revolutionary at the interface of science and engineering.

Broader impacts of EBICS include the potential to significantly enhance the understanding of emergent biological behaviors under integrated biochemical and physical cues at the cellular, cell network, and cell population levels; and an outreach and knowledge transfer program that will attract more young students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and particularly into the interdisciplinary field between biology and engineering. The center, through its alliance with minority serving institutions and active collaborative research plans with those institutions will improve the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM. The EBICS education plan includes a two-track, integrated graduate program that effectively merges the essential sciences and technologies needed, a graduate teaching consortium to offer a selection of courses synchronously in all partnering institutions via the internet, and international experiences by internships. Graduate courses developed by EBICS will be recorded and made widely and freely accessible through OpenCourseWare. The novel and revolutionary nature of the research will attract the best and the brightest students into this program and strengthen the future US workforce?s competitiveness in a global economy. Applications based on the Center?s potential discoveries will have direct impact on critical national needs such as energy, the environment, security, and healthcare. The vision of the proposed STC is clearly aligned with the national research and education strategic priorities.

For more information on EBICS, please visit http://ebics.net/.