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Keck gives $1 mil grant to study active matter

Published: January 22, 2010
Section: News

Active Matter: Inside the Carl J. Shapiro Science Center, where Brandeis faculty are studying the properties of active matter.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Active Matter: Inside the Carl J. Shapiro Science Center, where Brandeis faculty are studying the properties of active matter.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

The W. M. Keck Foundation has given Brandeis a grant of $1 million over three years to be designated towards recent experiments in the study of active matter.

Active matter is a non-living material that, nonetheless, can move independently (as opposed to plastic or steel which cannot.)

The Keck grant will add on to last year’s $7.8 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation for the study of active matter.

“Brandeis has been at the forefront of recent advances in materials science and biology, both in studying the properties of materials occurring in biological systems, and in understanding the role of material properties in the structure and function of cells and cellular components,” Prof. Seth Fradensaid (BIOL) said, adding that active matter, though a relatively new concept, is no exception.

The study of active matter is a multidisciplanary one. While Fraden studies biology, he has collaborated with physicists Prof. Zvonimir Dogic and Prof. Robert Meyer for the past six years in order to study active matter.

Many systems, including molecules, cell flagelli and galaxies, assemble themselves.

Though not living, these are examples of active matter, using energy to create movement in time and space.

The Brandeis scientists hope to understand how “biological gadgets” are composed and constrained, and use this newly acquired information to create nano-systems that mimic those biological gadgets for application, Meyer said.

Their research works in two directions, a “bottom-up” and a “top-down” approach.

In the bottom-up approach, scientists investigate how those “biological gadgets” are constrained, and how that affects the parts of the organism.

The top-down approach has scientists examining the smaller parts first, to figure out how they work and essentially reverse engineer the system to be recreated synthetically.

“How do these moving filaments feel the presence of their neighbors in a large organized array? How do they behave collectively? Are there rules? It’s not really clear how these organized systems of self-propelled filaments will behave, but we get hints of some possibilities from observing flocks of birds and schools of fish,” Meyer said.

“Understanding the rules of behavior of this new kind of matter may help us understand processes like cell motility,” he continued.

The W. M. Keck Foundation helps fund educational institutions for new research in medicine, science and engineering, as well as in support of undergraduate education.

Brandeis joins other research universities who have received similar grants, including California Institute of Technology, for research on the origin of the observable universe, and Princeton University, for development of a nano-scale microscope.