Technology

Cradles of Innovation

A closer look at the nation's Science and Technology Centers fostering new knowledge and innovations.

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Photo Credits: Li Hong Zhou, laboratories of Barbara G. Pickard and Guy M. Genin, NSF Science and Technology Center for Engineering MechanoBiology, Washington University in St. Louis.

In sensing a mechanical stimulus, this trichome—or hair cell of a plant—fluoresces red with acidity and green to indicate base. The visible papillar bumps, which acidify when the trichome is touched, store chemicals that may discourage invading insects. Understanding the role trichomes play in how plants perceive, adapt to and remember threats could pave the way for future, pesticide-free crop protection measures.

Researchers at the Center for Engineering MechanoBiology (CEMB), an NSF Science and Technology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, study plants like this Arabidopsis thaliana to learn how molecules, cells and tissues integrate mechanics within plant and animal biology, with the aim of creating new materials, biomedical therapies and agricultural technologies. Additionally, CEMB hosts “Innovation Slams” that link students and faculty to industry representatives, venture capitalists and others who expose them to the process of turning ideas into products.

Photo Credits: William Crawford, IODP/TAMU

A worker lowers a platform through a moon pool—an opening in the bottom of the scientific drilling ship, the JOIDES Resolution, run by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). This platform will rest on a subseafloor installation that penetrates into the crust. A submersible or remotely operated underwater vehicle is then used to place experiments on the platform prior to their being integrated with a subseafloor observatory. Such observatories provide a window into subseafloor environments to better understand Earth’s history and dynamics.

Researchers at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, an NSF Science and Technology Center, collect data from seafloor observatories to learn about microbial life below the ocean floor. They want to know what and how organisms exist in these environments, and how they coordinate global biogeochemical cycles that maintain the planet’s habitability. These extreme environments are also analogous to the environments found elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.

Photo Credits: Jason Bundy, BEACON Center, Michigan State University

The BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, an NSF Science and Technology Center headquartered at Michigan State University, brings together evolutionary biologists, computer scientists and engineers to observe in real-time, the evolution of a wide range of organisms, including bacteria like the E. coli seen here. In studying bacteria, BEACON scientists are learning about fundamental evolutionary dynamics to improve understanding of antibiotic resistance; the role microbiomes play in human health; the effects of changing environments; and to enable better engineering of microbes for biotechnology. BEACON biologists study a myriad of other organisms as well, from viruses to hyenas.

Meanwhile, BEACON computer scientists and engineers build artificial life systems to conduct experiments impossible in nature, and evolutionary algorithms to engineer everything from safer cars and more natural prosthetics to enhanced computer security. Collaborations between the BEACON Center and industry run deep, as researchers work together to address industry-posed challenges.

Photo Credits: Tom Zimmerman, IBM Research-Almaden

Scientists at IBM Research—IBM’s research and development division—captured this shadow image of plankton with an inexpensive, lensless microscope they invented. Working with their partners at the Center for Cellular Construction, IBM Research is using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect how plankton respond to toxins, with the goal of creating a network of AI microscopes to monitor and protect the health of oceans, lakes and rivers.

Through innovative partnerships with industry and cutting-edge research, NSF’s Science and Technology Centers are breaking new ground, continuously advancing the frontiers of science and maintaining U.S. global leadership in science and technology.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Gelson J Pagan-Diaz, Bioengineering Department, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What if we could 3-D print biological machines and put their tissues together like Lego building blocks? Bioengineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built this “muscle bot”—which can move—by molding and fitting muscle onto a 3-D printed, hydrogel skeleton that is compatible with the installation of other engineered tissues on the muscle, such as motor neurons.

The Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), an NSF Science and Technology Center located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Georgia Institute of Technology, supported the work through a grant. EBICS is a multi-institutional collaborative whose mission is to solve real-world health, security and environmental problems through the construction of living, multicellular machines.

EBICS works with industry partners to transfer knowledge and develop applications that will directly impact areas of national need, and to strengthen the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce.

Photo Credits: Cornell University

Devices like this superconducting radio frequency cavity accelerate electron beams in the world’s most powerful particle colliders and X-ray sources to nearly the speed of light. But particle accelerators aren’t just for science. The more than 30,000 industrial and medical accelerators in use around the world produce everything from sterilized band-aids to tires.

Researchers at the Center for Bright Beams, an NSF Science and Technology Center led by Cornell University, are working to decrease the costs associated with accelerator technology while simultaneously increasing the intensity of charged particle beams by two orders of magnitude. These efforts will spur advances across many scientific disciplines and lead to applications in everything from next generation computers to medicine.

Photo Credits: Tatsuya Osaki, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

To address some of the most complex problems confronting society requires large-scale, long-term investments in fundamental research. The new knowledge and technologies derived from those investments inevitably benefit industry and other sectors.

To facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology between science and industry, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Science and Technology Centers (STC) program in 1987. These multi-institutional collaborations conduct innovative, interdisciplinary research and serve as critical training grounds for the next generation of scientists and engineers. This gallery shows some of their groundbreaking work.

Left: A collection of motor neuron processes (green) extends from a motor neuron cluster (blue) to connect via synapses to a muscle strip (purple) in this image from the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), an NSF STC. EBICS is working to solve health, security and environmental problems through the construction of living, multi-cellular machines.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Alex Hughes

In this time-lapse image, a synthetic tissue consisting of collagen (in magenta) and clusters of embryonic cells from mice (green dots) folds autonomously into a 3-D, ribbon-like structure. The embryonic cells, whose placement on the collagen is guided by principles of Japanese origami, essentially tug and pull at the collagen to shape it over time.

Bioengineers at the Center for Cellular Construction (CCC), an NSF Science and Technology Center at the University of California, San Francisco, hope to adapt these tissue engineering techniques to build better artificial limbs and organs. Lab-grown tissues derived from patients’ stem cells may also allow researchers to screen drugs and test their effectiveness on diseases like cancer. By turning cell biology into an engineering discipline, CCC aims to develop new chemicals and materials for medical and consumer applications, while at the same time training a more diverse research and manufacturing workforce.

Photo Credits: Thomas D. Grant, University at Buffalo

Researchers wanting to better understand how viruses inject their genetic information into hosts are often thwarted by their inability to see inside and visualize the dynamism of virus molecules. A researcher at the Biology with X-ray Free Electron Lasers (BioXFEL) developed a new imaging method to better visualize biomolecules like the one seen here, whose inner structure lights up in red, orange and yellow hues. Using an algorithm to reconstruct a 3-D version of a molecule in a solution from a 1-D image produced by a pulsed, hard X-ray laser, the new technique will create a better understanding of molecular structures, possibly boosting virus research and transforming the field of drug discovery.

Established in 2013, BioXFEL, an NSF Science and Technology Center located at the University at Buffalo, works to answer fundamental questions about biology at the molecular level. As a result, center research is spurring much needed innovation in disease development and treatments.

Photo Credits: Hara Madhav Talasila

According to the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), an NSF Science and Technology Center led by the University of Kansas, the melt from Greenland’s ice sheet contributes to global sea level rise at a rate of 0.52 millimeters annually. Understanding sea level change in relation to the mass balance of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice sheets is at the heart of the CReSIS mission.

CReSIS is at the forefront of developing ice-penetrating and imaging radar technology. The center’s innovative radar, lidar and seismic sensors provide improved data for ice sheet modeling and other applications. Developing an understanding of how ice sheets are changing over time requires precise measurements of the thickness of the ice sheets and accurate mapping of the bedrock below. CReSIS also designs and manufactures unmanned aircraft systems, enabling aerial platforms to image the ice-bedrock interface and collect fine-resolution data over fast-flowing glaciers.

In-flight radars designed and operated by CReSIS have predicted sea level change since 2005.

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