Research

RNA and membranes drive a variety of complex cellular processes. Both systems display self-assembly and catalytic behaviors that can be harnessed to generate new biomedical materials and technologies. Using emerging engineering methods in material science and synthetic biology, we construct macromolecular assemblies (also called artificial cells) that are capable of complex signaling and responsive behaviors. We will explore how these new materials can advance targeted drug delivery, be used as novel sensors for mechanical stress, and be used as model systems to study and recreate fundamental cellular behaviors.

Bilayer Membranes

The structures we build are based on bilayer membranes, which provide a platform to assemble amphiphiles, peptides, proteins, and polymers, and mimic the structure of biological membranes.

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Phospholipid vesicles, or liposomes, have traditionally been used to model cell membranes, but are limited in mechanical strength and synthetic flexibility. In order to create synthetic membranes with a diverse range of physical and chemical properties, it has become important to expand the composition of model membranes to include other amphiphilic molecules, like diblock copolymers. We will work with a combination of biological and synthetic materials to construct responsive vesicle membranes.

Projects

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Responsive Membranes

We are exploring how a variety of amphiphiles can be used to design bilayer membranes that can respond to chemical and physical stimuli and generate signals to regulate cell behavior. We study how the physical properties of these materials change as a function of their composition. We also explore how chemical systems, such as cell-free protein expression systems or other enzymatic reactions, can be encapsulated within or coupled to the membranes we design.

Stress Sensors

The construction of optically active mechanical sensors has garnered much interest by the biological and materials communities. We aim to expand methods for acquiring soft material and cell membrane stress measurements, by creating optical, mechanosensitive probes. These probes, that will be embedded into and tethered onto synthetic vesicles, will provide new measurements and insights into the stresses and material changes of cellular membranes and polymeric materials.

Tools

We work with a variety of techniques to construct and study artificial membranes including microfluidic methods, soft lithography methods, microscopy, and a variety of molecular biology techniques