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  • Michelle Franklin

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  • Michelle Franklin

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Professor of Chemistry Neal Devaraj Named Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellow

Department of Defense fellowship is agency’s most prestigious research grant award

Neal K. Devaraj, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, has been named a Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellow by the Department of Defense (DOD). Devaraj was one of only nine selected fellows, and the first from UC San Diego since 2015. He was recognized for his proposed work on “engineering dynamic lipid compartments for an artificial cell.”

Neal K. Devaraj

“I congratulate Neal on this remarkable recognition from the Department of Defense,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “As a research-focused university, this fellowship is not only a testament to Neal’s excellent work, but also a testament to the work our outstanding faculty do every day to push the frontiers of science forward.”

Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Miroslav Krstic echoed the chancellor’s remarks: “Neal is nationally acclaimed among colleagues from areas as distant from his field as my own, control theory. While the Vannevar Bush Fellowship's success rate is 3%, with many academic luminaries as recipients, it is hardly a surprise that he was selected. A star from his start at UC San Diego, Neal keeps raising the bar for his faculty colleagues.”

The fellowship is named after Vannevar Bush, who led the DOD’s Office of Scientific Research during World War II. Fellows receive up to $3 million over five years to conduct basic research in areas ranging from quantum materials and applied mathematics to materials science and bioengineering. The fellowship reflects Bush’s belief that basic research is the foundation from which new products and processes grow, which the DOD refers to as “blue sky” research.

“This is an extraordinary and unique opportunity to pursue curiosity-driven basic research. It really is unlike any other funding we have had, and my lab and I are thrilled about the opportunity,” said Devaraj, who is also the Murray Goodman Endowed Chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Devaraj’s work focuses on one of the most challenging problems in chemical biology: understanding how non-living matter can assemble to form life. His proposed research approaches this problem through the synthesis of artificial cells—cells that can self-assemble, grow and reproduce not just once, but cyclically as occurs in nature. His lab has leveraged its work on artificial cells to create new tools for manipulating lipids. Their most recent work was published in Nature Chemistry earlier this month.

His work for the DOD will focus on lipid membranes, which form a continuous barrier around cells. These membranes help keep unwanted molecules outside, while keeping ions, proteins and other necessary molecules inside. Lipid membranes are also necessary for organizing cellular reactions and regulating the exchange of matter and energy with the environment.

“We currently do not understand the rules for reconstituting and maintaining lifelike lipid membranes that function far from equilibrium. In nature, cell membranes are highly dynamic and are fueled by chemical energy. This allows them to transform their shapes and sizes, enabling processes like cellular division,” stated Devaraj. “Our planned research aims to develop an artificial cell cycle using synthetic dynamic lipid membranes.”

Although any applications for this research remain far into the future, understanding and utilizing reliable mechanisms to produce artificial cells with synthetic lipid membranes could lead to the development of biomimetic materials with greater complexity and function than those currently available. The proposed research could enhance understanding of how to interface synthetic and biological systems and redefine what constitutes “living matter.”

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