New York University’s Center for Soft Matter Research has received a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to address questions of self-assembly involving the organic materials that are at the heart of the emerging discipline of soft matter science.
While the replication of biological systems, such as cells, has been widely studied and is already well understood, little is known about how non-biological systems can reproduce themselves. Under the Keck Foundation Grant, NYU’s Center for Soft Matter Research will design and construct materials that have sufficient information coded in their chemical and physical interactions to self replicate and self assemble. Research in this area holds the potential to unlock significant technological advances, possibly leading to the creation of smaller, cheaper sensors, detectors, and communications devices.
The research will be directed by NYU physics professors Paul Chaikin, David Grier, and David Pine, who head NYU’s Center for Soft Matter Research, as well as chemistry professor Nadrian Seeman.
“We’re all extremely excited about this research,” says Grier, chair of NYU’s department of physics. “Research in the area of the self-replication of non-biological systems is a totally new field, and this research is unique to NYU.”
The interdisciplinary research will emphasize the self-replication of microsystems. According to Grier, although nanotechnology can assemble very small units into precise structures through chemical approaches, integrating them into larger systems presents substantial problems. Since the individual units of microsystems are so small, replicating each unit within the system manually is prohibitively time consuming and costly. However, if the researchers are able to discover the rules that allow something to copy its organization-to self-replicate-they will be able to make industrially relevant quantities of specifically structured microsystems in short periods, possibly a few hours or days.
Their hope is that within five to 10 years, the research will provide industry with helpful new technologies. These developments may include cheaper and more effective chemical sensors, such as tiny iridescent chips that can be packaged with perishable goods, and alert consumers and vendors when a product is no longer fit for consumption by changing color. Over the longer term, the researchers aim not only to have non-biological systems self-replicate, but also to evolve. This evolution, which could only occur in a controlled laboratory or factory setting, could lead to important technological advances that cannot yet be fully imagined.
“Our gratitude to the Keck Foundation is matched only by our pride in the faculty who are leading this effort,” says Richard Foley, dean of NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science. “Soft matter science is an emerging cross disciplinary field of enormous long-term significance; and the recent hires of Paul Chaiken, David Grier, and David Pine, combined with outstanding faculty talent already here, for example, Ned Seeman of chemistry, have catapulted NYU to the forefront of this exciting new field.”
Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science, and engineering.