Two engineering professors win Department of Defense research grants
Dennis Prather
Eleftherios Papoutsakis
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8:28 a.m., Oct. 9, 2009----Two University of Delaware engineering professors -- Dennis Prather, Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Eleftherios Papoutsakis, the Eugene du Pont Chair of Chemical Engineering and a faculty fellow at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute -- have been awarded research grants from the U.S. Department of Defense's 2009 Defense Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR).

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Prather, whose research at UD focuses on nano-photonics and electromagnetics, received funding in the amount of $750,000 for three years from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

“Our project is concerned with developing silicon nanomembranes, thin layers of electronic material, that can be integrated with other devices and materials in multiple dimensions,” said Prather, whose research group uses a variety of advanced equipment and highly specialized facilities to design and create photonic devices on the nanometer scale. “Today, computer chips are two-dimensional at the device level. This project will allow us to go into the third dimension.”

The project will address information technology's current limitations on speed and the ability to communicate within systems, Prather said.

“Silicon is historically an electronic material and hard to integrate with photonic materials,” said Prather. “These membranes can help overcome those hurdles.”

“The nice thing is that we'll be able to dovetail this research with a project we're doing in conjunction with MIT that actually develops the devices that will integrate with this technology,” said Prather. “It's a nice continuation of our work and allows us to take it to the next level.”

Papoutsakis' project will facilitate the development of complex phenotypes in microbial cells, so that the cells can better withstand stressful bioprocessing conditions, such as accumulation of toxic products and byproducts.

Such conditions are typically encountered by cells in applications for the production of chemicals or biofuels, or in bioremediation applications for removal of toxic chemicals from contaminated soil or aqueous systems.

Funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in the amount of $480,786 for three years, the project will involve the development of a semi-synthetic chaperone or stress response system that can be customized to deal with any stressful condition.

Next, Papoutsakis' research group will develop strategies for a forced evolution-based development of novel pathways and complex phenotypes. The goal of this part of the project is to generate a semi-synthetic chaperone first and eventually develop synthetic genomes and cells by emulating evolutionary approaches.

“The significance of the ONR grant is that it will allow my group to delve into a totally unexplored territory for the development of semi-synthetic, or even synthetic genomes, in order to enlarge the capabilities of established methodologies in metabolic engineering,” said Papoutsakis. “The aim of these methods is to design and develop strains with desirable complex traits (phenotypes). Call it synthetic genomics or evolutionary engineering; we will try to demonstrate that we can create genomes and cells with larger or drastically different genomes by adding either DNA from totally unrelated organisms or totally synthetic DNA that can carry either coding or regulatory functions.”

Using both analytical and synthetic genomic tools and metabolic engineering approaches, Papoutsakis' research group at UD studies and modifies the regulatory networks that control key cellular programs, aiming to contribute to the understanding of cellular processes of both fundamental and industrial interests.

In addition to the development of microbial strains for "green technology" applications, such as the production of chemicals from renewable resources, his group is also working on stem-cell bioengineering projects aiming to understand and exploit stem-cell differentiation for the generation of cells and tissues for regenerative and transfusion-medicine applications.

“This is a high-risk, high-reward type of project, and we are very excited that ONR accepted it as such and decided to fund it,” said Papoutsakis. “We will have a lot of fun going off the deep end in this unconventional project. This is a great project for all sorts of UD students to work on -- graduate students, postdocs, and, significantly, also undergraduate students.”

The DEPSCoR program supports scientific research deemed critical to national security and the Department of Defense at 20 academic institutions in 14 states. 21 states, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, are eligible. $14.1 million in grants were awarded in 2009.

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel