Innovation funds awarded to support natural sciences research

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Feb. 24, 2015

New ideas in the natural sciences

Garnet Chan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Chemistry, and Gregory Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, will study how atomic particles interact at the quantum level in order to discover new chemical reactions. This new way of thinking about chemical reactions could lead to advances in energy, medicine and industry. Their approach also could help answer open questions in chemistry: For example, researchers lack a detailed understanding of the mechanism behind certain naturally occurring chemical reactions, such as the splitting of water molecules during photosynthesis. The combination of Chan's recent theoretical work and Scholes' experimental methods will enable progress in understanding how quantum effects that involve cooperation among electrons can lead to new reaction chemistry.

In another project, Jared Toettcher and Alexander Ploss, assistant professors of molecular biology, will develop a method for controlling cell behavior in live animals that could be used to study cancer, organ development, immune-system function, and the causes and treatment of disease. Toettcher and Ploss will develop mice whose cells can be controlled through optogenetics, which involves using light to direct cell behavior. The researchers will genetically engineer cells to express light-sensitive proteins. When light is delivered to the cell via an optical fiber, these proteins will change shape and turn on the signaling pathways that control cell movement or growth. Eventually, the investigators plan to use the technique in mice to manipulate activities such as cell growth, differentiation, immune-system response and the movement of cells to new places during organ development.

For the third project, Zemer Gitai, an associate professor of molecular biology, will build "resistance-proof" antibiotics that retain their potency against bacteria. Most antibacterial drugs work by disrupting the growth of bacteria. Resistance develops when a small percentage of bacteria evolve a new way to survive, which enables them to replicate quickly and fill the population vacuum left by the killed-off non-resistant bacteria. Gitai will seek to discover and test possible drug candidates that stop infection without disrupting growth, such as by targeting the machinery for infecting new cells. Such a drug would stop infection but allow bacteria to grow normally. While some bacteria would still evolve drug resistance, they would lack a growth advantage over their neighbors and remain a small percentage of the overall population. As a result, the drug would remain potent at stopping infection.