UMass Amherst Chemist Receives $6.25 Million Grant to Develop Molecular Signals

Sankaran Thayumanavan
Sankaran Thayumanavan
Jenny Ross
Jenny Ross
Anthony Dinsmore
Anthony Dinsmore

AMHERST, Mass. – The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recently awarded a grant expected to total $6.25 million over five years to a team of chemists, physicists and chemical engineers led by Sankaran Thayumanavan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to develop new algorithms and identify pathways involved in a molecular detection and signaling process.

Thayumanavan and colleagues will study the pathways that cause an initial molecular-scale response to a specific physical, chemical or biological signal, which can be transformed into a conveniently observable macroscopic event. At-home pregnancy tests are an example of a currently available system where molecular-scale responses to the presence of certain hormone molecules become macroscopically visible in a short time, says Thayumanavan.

He adds, “If we can develop the fundamental science that provides pathways for detecting a variety of molecules around us, then the impact will be huge. Developing the science to seamlessly connect molecular-scale events with macroscopically discernible processes is the focus of this MURI team.”

The DoD’s Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) award comes in two phases, first as three years of $1.25 million funding per year, followed by a two-year, $1.25 million per year phase. In addition to Thayumanavan, UMass Amherst team members include physicists Jenny Ross and Anthony Dinsmore, plus three others from the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, San Diego. 

In nature, such pathways already exist, Thayumanavan says. For example, in the “touch-me not” plant, leaves instantly shrink away due to the mechanical force of the touch, which initially starts out as a molecular-scale response but is rapidly transformed into a macroscopically observable shrinking event. At the molecular level, he points out, such responses take place when a force is applied to a system, causing a protein in plant cells to expand, which releases a few molecules that generate a cascade of biological events in a very short time.

“The process goes from molecular to macro typically in a second or less,” he explains. “There are a few good examples in nature, but right now such an ability is very limited in artificial systems. Our team will try to develop a fundamental understanding of how we can advance future investigations of these phenomena. This fundamental understanding could have implications in developing new technologies that are not available currently.”

Thayumanavan says it is too early to talk about practical applications of the work because the MURI supports developing fundamental molecular design algorithms and basic approaches. He and colleagues plan to take both bottom-up and top-down approaches to the problem, designing molecules from scratch to see how they respond to specific stimuli such as pH, temperature, proteins and pathogen concentrations, for example.

The DoD’s MURI program brings research teams together to investigate high priority topics and opportunities that intersect more than one traditional technical discipline. For many military problems this multidisciplinary approach serves to stimulate innovations, accelerate research progress and expedite transition of results into military and commercial applications.