Hao Yan awarded $1.2 million to create ‘living electronics’

Hao Yan awarded $1.2 million to create ‘living electronics’

October 18, 2018

  • In addition to his appointment at the Biodesign Institute, Yan holds the inaugural Milton D. Glick Distinguished Chair in the School of Molecular Sciences.

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October 18, 2018

Hao Yan, director of the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, received an extension of the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant for his groundbreaking work in nanotechnologies. The additional $1.2 million will help “set the foundation for the bottom-up engineering of synthetic biology tools,” according to Yan. A previous five-year grant of $6.25 million allowed Yan’s team to use structural components of cells to test out fundamental elements and determine their best use.

The team’s project centers on building 3-D artificial enzyme centers. As scientists continue to gain a better understanding of the structures of these enzyme centers, they can improve drug effectiveness and build smart pharmaceuticals that are better able to bind with therapeutic targets. They pair different enzymes together to work more efficiently in concert.

Yan’s studies of nanotechnology involve an intricate manipulation of the various structures of DNA. By designing and shaping genetic material to move in certain ways, Yan enables the body to target specific goals on a molecular level.

The objective of Yan’s research is to build self-assembling nano-mechanisms that will be able to replicate naturally occurring higher order systems. These can be considered living electronics because although they were created in a lab, they serve the same functions as living cell materials. Some of the important activities that these synthetic higher order systems conduct include mimicking biochemical pathways implicated in diseases or in energy conversion during photosynthesis.

According to Yan, the MURI grant was “a golden opportunity to expand our research in a new direction. In this new phase, we try to integrate everything to make it functional and applicable for society’s benefit.”

The project is a collaboration with School of Molecular Sciences Director Neal Woodbury, and researchers Su Lin and Don Seo, members of Yan’s MURI research team. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School and University of Michigan have also contributed to the first phase of the project.

“Dr. Yan’s science and his understanding of how to build these structures that everything is based on is absolutely first rate,” Woodbury said. “There’s nobody in the world that’s better at that than he is. Designing, building and characterizing these structures is something that Dr. Yan does extraordinarily well.”

Yan’s work exists at the cross-section of biology, chemistry, physics, and material science, drawing inspiration from both natural and human-designed architectural forms.

Recent discoveries include the development of a nanorobot that is able to cut off the blood supply to a tumor and the creation of nanotweezers that are able to manipulate biological molecules measuring 100,000th the width of a human hair.

The MURI program is sponsored by the Department of Defense (DoD). A limited number of research projects are selected each year. The DoD MURI program focuses on high-risk, high-reward research in a broad variety of areas.

“The Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program, or MURI, supports research by funding teams of investigators that include more than one traditional science and engineering discipline in order to accelerate the research progress,” said Dale Ormond, Principal Director for Research, in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.  According to Ormond, most of the program’s efforts involve researchers from multiple academic institutions and academic departments.  “MURI awards also support the education and training of graduate students in cutting-edge research areas,” Ormond stated.

Yan also serves as the Milton D. Glick Distinguished Chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry for the School of Molecular Sciences. He joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2004, before becoming a full professor in 2008 and being promoted to the inaugural Glick Chair position in 2011. His co-workers have noted the remarkably sharp trajectory of his career and credit it to his unique talents.


Written by: Sabine Galvis