Inspired by Nature

New center taps natural processes for chemical innovation
UMass Amherst Professor Thai Thayumanavan works with students in his lab.

Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan (top left) has big plans for the $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant the campus has received to create a multi-university Center for Autonomous Chemistry. He and his colleagues, including fellow UMass Amherst chemist Vince Rotello, seek to design artificial self-activating systems that mimic how biological systems respond automatically to subtle changes in their environment. Thayumanavan calls the process “automatic control as nature does it.”

Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan

Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan

He cites as an example the many components of the immune system that remain quiet and dormant until an irritant or pathogen is detected. “Once that happens,” says Thayumanavan, “it’s activated. It’s automatic, organically driven; that’s what we refer to as autonomous. The response requires no other intervention.” Thayumanavan knows of no current artificial systems with that capability and adds, “It would be really valuable if we could develop something like it. We want to figure out the ways in which nature uses molecular interactions to create autonomous function.”

Autonomous chemistry has a broad range of applications. Thayumanavan says that personalized medicine has a high profile at the moment and that the need for this type of innovation is widely and readily understood.

Vince Rotello

Vince Rotello

“If, for example,” says Thayumanavan, “we had a system that could sense an individual’s response to a drug they’ve been prescribed, that would be very beneficial. We know that some people hyperreact to medication, some respond just fine, and some don’t respond at all. If we had a quick test, an autonomous biomarker without the need for heavy diagnostic testing, it would enhance medicine for many, many people.” 

In order to develop “designer materials with autonomous capabilities,” Center researchers will “do the chemistry” to figure out the structural underpinnings of such a system. Thayumanavan and his team members expect that when they try to mimic any complex biological system using a one-step-at-a-time approach, each step will hold the exciting possibility of leading to innovations or new capabilities.

UMass Amherst’s partners in the endeavor include researchers from MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Phase 1 funding comes as part of NSF’s Center for Chemical Innovation program.

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