Templeton Foundation Grant Funds “Active Matter” Research

A $1 million award will fund research by physics professor Pranab Das and alumnus Daniel Blair ’97, an associate professor at Georgetown University.

Two decades after Elon Professor Pranab Das started mentoring Daniel Blair '97, a physics major now on the faculty at Georgetown University, the duo are working together again to explore the science and philosophical implications of "active matter" in living cells.

To understand “active matter,” imagine your typical ant. On its own, that ant scurries along the ground, sometimes running in circles, perhaps lacking a clear sense of purpose or direction.

Put that same ant alongside hundreds of thousands of others, and you’ll notice something start to emerge. Intricate nests appear underground with complex passageways. Teams coordinate to forage food and raise offspring. The colony is greater than the sum of its individual parts, which on their own aren’t consciously aware of what they create.

Now imagine something similar taking place inside every cell of your body. Microtubules are hollow tubes that help comprise a cell’s cytoplasm, the complex material in which mitochondria and other macromolecules reside.

Individually, microtubules serve little purpose. In concert with the machinery of the cell, they can work together to move cellular cargo, maintain the structure of the cell, and separate chromosomes as part of cellular reproduction.

When extracted from cells and set in motion via molecular motors, microtubules can exhibit emergent behavior, the process where patterns arise from the interaction of smaller building blocks that are fundamentally different from the finished, novel product.

The scientific and philosophical implications of emergence in cells are immense - and a research team comprised of an Elon University professor, an alumnus whom he mentored now working at Georgetown University, and a third colleague from Brandeis University have partnered on a $1 million grant to replicate and research the “active matter” of microtubules.

Elon Professor Pranab Das, Georgetown Associate Professor Daniel Blair ‘97 and Brandeis Associate Professor Zvonimir Dogic received funding this summer from the John Templeton Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based philanthropic organization that supports research into “the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.”

Blair and Dogic will use that funding to build nanomachines that mimic the microtubules and create new technologies to help researchers measure molecules. Das will coordinate summer programs for scientists, philosophers, historians and other intellectual leaders to learn about the emergent properties of living cells, and start to discuss how they may change fundamental understanding of life.

“Is there a life force? Is life itself dependent on the existence of active matter?” Das asked. “My job is to find the best people to think about these questions. … It’s a joy to be on the ground floor of a collective endeavor and have something to do with shaping the direction of that endeavor.”

Blair’s research interests are in what he describes as “soft condensed matter physics,” a young subfield of condensed matter physics that has its roots in polymer science. He has previous work experience at Argonne National Laboratory in the Material Science Division and as a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Department of Physics at Harvard University. Blair received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award in 2009.

Blair said there are many questions that arise as scientists begin to reexamine cells through more than just biochemical pathways. What are the connections between the mechanics of cellular motion, and the life function of a cell? What does it mean for something to be “alive” on that level? What does it mean when a cell dies?

“There are real mechanical processes in biology that we need to start thinking about,” he said.

The three-year project runs through 2018 with summer schools, journal articles and more expected as a result of the funding.

For both mentor and protégé, the project brings full circle a relationship that started two decades ago when Blair first took a course with Das.

“If it weren’t for Pranab, honestly, I would not be in the position that I am as an academic scientist,” Blair said. “I had joined a fraternity, I was a knucklehead, I was being a real dodo, and he pulled me aside and said if you’re ever going to go to graduate school, you need to get your (stuff) together. Those were his exact words. And I did. I needed that at the time. Pranab’s been that grounding force for a long time for me.”

“He’s been the person who has promoted me throughout the years to be the kind of scientist I am.”