SU Interdisciplinary Team Wins $2M EFRI Grant from NSF

Understand and Control Bacterial Multicellular Systems and Bacteria-Host Interactions


Principal Investigator Dacheng Ren, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering (BMCE) in Syracuse University’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (LCS) and member of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI) along with co-PIs professors Rebecca Bader (BMCE and SBI), Yan-Yeung Luk (Chemistry & SBI), R. “Suresh” Sureshkumar (BMCE) and Ramesh Raina (Biology), have been awarded $2 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research on deciphering and controlling the signaling processes in bacterial multicellular systems and bacteria-host interactions. This grant comes from the office of emerging frontiers in research and innovation (EFRI) and was only awarded to 14 teams nationally this year.

Bacterial tolerance to antibiotics and disinfectants cause numerous problems of infections and biofouling. Bacteria obtain such tolerance by forming sessile colonies in an extracellular matrix, known as biofilms; and by forming dormant persister cells, similar to spores.. Inherent in bacterial populations, persister cells are believed to play important roles in chronic infections like tuberculosis, persistent fungal infections, and lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. The dormant properties of these persister cells make them tolerant to almost all antibiotics. Therefore, infections can reoccur once a person stops antibiotic treatment since the bacteria can regrow from the persister cells and attack again.

By employing a multidisciplinary approach the team will focus on understanding and manipulating the multicellular and inter-kingdom signaling processes of these complex systems. The team will perform experiments in the areas of material design, functional genomics, bioinformatics, molecular simulation and nanotechnology with the main goals to understand persister formation in biofilm development, to investigate the associated signaling processes, and to synthesize functional nanoparticles for controlled release of signaling modulators to eliminate persister cells and biofilms.

EFRI provides funding opportunities for interdisciplinary teams of researchers to embark on rapidly advancing frontiers of fundamental engineering research. EFRI seeks proposals with potentially transformative ideas that represent an opportunity for a significant shift in fundamental engineering knowledge with a strong potential for long-term impact on national needs or a grand challenge.

This award falls into the engineering new technologies based on multicellular and inter-kingdom signaling (MIKS). These grants are intended to support the National Academy of Engineering’s grand challenge to engineer better medicine. Due to the broad spectrum of problems and opportunities associated with persister cells and biofilms, the proposed work will have significant impacts on basic science, economy, biosecurity and health care.

Beyond any technical achievements, this project will also play an important role in transforming college engineering education. Unlike traditional projects that focus on relatively narrow topics, this project targets multicellular and inter-kingdom signaling, a highly interdisciplinary area. The advanced topics associated with this research will provide invaluable materials to teach modern biotechnology, molecular simulation, synthetic biology and bioinformatics, providing the students with crucial knowledge and skills to address the scientific, engineering and societal challenges. This research will also create exciting outreach opportunities and bring talented young people, especially underrepresented groups, into science and engineering careers.

The team is comprised of faculty from the departments of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering, Biology and Chemistry and also includes collaboration with the University of Rochester and Brookhaven National Laboratory. In addition to the PI and four co-PIs, the research team also includes Shikha Nangia Ph.D. (BMCE), Professor Kyun Koo from the University of Rochester and Oleg Gang Ph.D. from Brookhaven National Laboratory. Of the five SU professors on this grant, four are also winners of NSF’s prestigious CAREER award.

“I am very excited about this award. It gives us a unique opportunity to investigate and control this complex system with new technologies from multiple fields.” Ren said.
“This is a great example of the type of collaboration we hope to continue to see amongst faculty across campus,” says Sureshkumar, professor and BMCE department chair.

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