IRG-B: Harnessing Disordered Macromolecular Structures for Living and Soft Matter

Biological systems are structurally disordered and rheologically complex, with architectures ranging from the scales of molecules to tissues, yet they self-assemble and function robustly in a coordinated manner. The field of soft matter science provides a framework for understanding the diverse mechanical and transport properties of living systems, both at the intracellular and extracellular scales. This IRG will use this materials-centric perspective to determine new "Rules of Life" and develop new insights for the control of soft materials, which are inherently multi-component, disordered, and often out of equilibrium. The integration of biology and materials science is reflected in the fields of expertise of the investigators and collaborators (experimentalists and theorists) who form an interactive community at Princeton.

The team will focus on macromolecules that form solutions and gels with key rheological properties that serve as fundamental building blocks of soft and living materials. Biological polymers, such as proteins and nucleic acids, have diverse intracellular (e.g., gene regulation) and extracellular (e.g., biofilm matrices) functions, which are connected to structural features like molecular weight, chain architecture, charge distribution, monomer sequence, and cross-linking. This IRG will bridge materials science and biology to address how macromolecular properties determine and control material functions at two scales of biological organization – the intra- and extracellular levels – and to inspire new materials insights.

The research addresses two key questions: 1) How is the formation of multiple condensed phases controlled in macromolecular solutions containing passive and active components? 2) How do macromolecular gels regulate form and function in multicomponent and active systems? These themes span the common fluid and elastic materials that exist throughout biology and constitute many novel soft materials. The IRG’s combined experimental, computational and theoretical approaches to answer these questions will enable insights into understanding the "Rules of Life" by demonstrating how macromolecules regulate gene expression, aggregation of pathological proteins, cellular transport, and formation of multicellular communities. The IRG will provide materials science insights into how macromolecules can be combined with active components and optogenetic control to design new responsive systems with tunable properties. The IRG’s integration of tools and insights will support the foundation for the emerging field of “living materials science."

Howard Stone (MAE)
Rodney Priestley (CBE)

Senior Investigators
Bonnie Bassler (Mol-Bio)
Clifford Brangwynne (CBE)
Sujit Datta (CBE)
Mikko Haataja (MAE)
Andrej Košmrlj (MAE)
Celeste Nelson (CBE)
Athanassios Panagiotopoulos (CBE)
Richard Register (CBE)

Daniel J. Cohen (MAE)
Danelle Devenport (Mol-Bio)
Zemer Gitai (Mol-Bio)
William M. Jacobs (Chemistry)
Janine Nunes (MAE)
Sabine Petry (Mol-Bio)
Joshua Shaevitz (Physics)
Jared E. Toettcher (Mol-Bio)