USD Research Published in Science Advances, Studies How Human Biology Can be Used to Create Futuristic, Autonomous Materials

Dr. Rae M. Robertson-Anderson (center) in her lab with studentsA microscopic material in motion. A multi-spectral fluorescence microscopy time-lapse image showing how the proteins that comprise the material - actin (green) and microtubules (magenta) move and contract towards the center over time.

Research from a $1 million WM Keck Foundation grant that looked at how human biology can be used to create autonomous materials of the future has been published in Science Advances. Dr. Rae M. Robertson-Anderson, University of San Diego (USD) professor and chair of the Physics and Biophysics department, was the principal investigator of the paper alongside a postdoc and a junior biophysics student at USD. The university also collaborated with Syracuse University, University of Chicago and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Since the grant was awarded in 2018, Dr. Robertson-Anderson and her team of researchers have been looking at ways to recreate the biological infrastructure in our cells, known as the cytoskeleton, which senses and adapts to changing environments, to create autonomous materials that don’t need human input to move, morph and do work. For example, the research findings could serve as the building blocks to one day create bridges and roads that could repair themselves or adaptable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that can sense toxins in the air and morph to block or filter out toxins.

“We showed that we can make materials that recreate the active motion and morphing that our cells already undergo. We’ve shown it on a very small scale. Now that we can create this system outside of our bodies and outside of cells, we can think about how we can add features into it, how we can scale it up to make it the size of a bridge,” said Dr. Robertson-Anderson.

The experiments were done, with the help of USD biophysics students, by recreating and combining three of the major proteins found in the cytoskeleton that serve as the bones (microtubules) and ropes (actin) that give our cell’s strength, and the motors (myosin) that allow our cells to move, flex, push and pull. “It’s understanding the fundamental physics behind what allows the material to do what it does on its own, so then we can apply those principles to other materials and to other systems to create autonomous materials,” added Dr. Robertson-Anderson.

“Professors like Dr. Robertson-Anderson are inspiring future generations of STEM innovators on the University of San Diego campus. As the first USD faculty member to be funded through the prestigious Keck Foundation’s Science Research Program, competing with other university researchers across the country, Dr. Robertson-Anderson and her team are providing valuable knowledge in the sciences that can revolutionize the way that we live our lives in the future,” said Dr. Noelle Norton, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Diego. 

You can access the published research: “Myosin-driven actin-microtubule networks exhibit self-organized contractile dynamics” in Science Advances, here.

About the University of San Diego

The University of San Diego sets the standard for an engaged, contemporary Catholic university where innovative Changemakers confront humanity’s urgent challenges. With more than 9,000 students from 69 countries and 50 states, USD is the youngest independent institution on the U.S. News & World Report list of top 100 universities in the United States. The university's eight academic divisions include the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Business, the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, the School of Law, the School of Leadership and Education Sciences, the Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and the Division of Professional and Continuing Education. USD's Envisioning 2024 strategic plan capitalizes on the university’s recent progress and aligns new strategic goals with current strengths to help shape a vision for the future as the university looks ahead to its 75th anniversary in the year 2024.


Elena Gomez
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