Nature provides us with breathtaking examples of elegant and functional nanosystems. From magnetic bacteria that sense the earth’s magnetic field using nanosized bar magnets, to the nanoparticle- (NP-) mediated transport of inorganic material in wastewater, the world around us is filled with examples of nanomaterials in action. These examples illustrate that the interaction between nanosystems and biosystems can be a strong and important one, a lesson that nanoscientists are now exploring in the design of artificial, chemically prepared nanobiosystems. Our Center’s research seeks to understand and ultimately manipulate this interaction, which we term the wet/dry interface, as it manifests over a wide range of length scales, ranging from biomolecules to the earth’s environment.
CBEN’s research program is oriented toward specific engineered systems that exemplify how nanobiosystems can be used to solve real world problems. One of our engineered systems goals is the development of bioconjugated NPs that can detect and ultimately treat disease. In Theme 2, CBEN researchers under the direction of theme leader Professor West pursue both near-term enabling technologies and longer-term test beds (e.g., animal studies) for using the innovative properties of nanomaterials to solve problems in bioengineering. A second engineered systems goal is the development of more efficient and higher-performance water-treatment systems. This research is carried out in Theme 3 and is directed by Professor Alvarez (Rice University). The programs seek to revolutionize how we treat water and remediate its waste using the latest tools and materials from nanoscale chemistry. Theme 2 and Theme 3 share many crosscutting issues as their technologies approach commercialization; most notably, a major roadblock for each area is an understanding of the environmental and health effects of engineered NPs. CBEN has, since its inception, included such issues in its strategic plan, and now devotes a portion of research in both Theme 2 and Theme 3 to this critical issue. In addition, CBEN was founded on the realization that biological and environmental applications of NPs will require a strong, fundamental understanding of and control over NP behavior in biological systems. Theme 1 addresses these basic questions in chemistry, physics, and biology by studying and developing the science of the wet/dry interface.
While we divide the research into themes for easier management, our engineered systems have multiple interaction points and share numerous enabling technologies. For example, researchers in Theme 1, led by Colvin, provide researchers in Theme 2 and Theme 3 with new varieties of nanomaterials for desired applications. Near-infrared (NIR) emitting quantum dots (QDs), developed under the Theme 1 nanomanufacturing core, are now being used to image cells. Also, we have carefully chosen our portfolio to have overlapping near-term objectives. For example, work on solvating NPs (Theme 1) is complemented by work on NP surface chemistry, aggregation, and contaminant adsorption in the crosscutting environmental impact project (Theme 3). Much of the fundamental chemistry and biology in Theme 1 and Theme 2 has great relevance to topics in Theme 3. Our ongoing studies of the toxicity of C60, for example, have spawned a Theme 3 environmental applications project aimed at leveraging reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation in carbon nanostructures for biofilm reduction. The majority of CBEN projects began as “new start” collaborations in which investigators had no prior collaborative work. The payoff from investing in these new areas is clear now, as CBEN work has resulted in hundreds of published or in-press publications; our indicators of future performance (papers submitted, provisional patents) are equally sizable and are a testament to the productive and high-impact work completed in this Center. Our research highlights for 2007-2008 include:
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