This research project advances fundamental materials research that is bioinspired, involves biological materials, and addresses synthetic materials intended for application in contact with biological systems. The work is motivated by the observation that living materials (cells and tissues) are soft and dynamic, and provide a range of useful functions by coupling shape, internal organization and mechanical strain. Specifically, the project seeks to advance the design of new synthetic materials that dynamically regulate their mechanical interactions with living cells (as a type of synthetic exoskeleton), thus providing new ways to instruct the behaviors of living cells or, alternatively, report on changes in the mechanical properties of cells. The initial effort is directed at the creation of reconfigurable, soft material interfaces with red blood cells, with a focus on elucidation of the complex and non-linear mechanical interactions of soft synthetic and biological materials. The approach involves a convergence of perspectives from biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. In the long term, the work has the potential to lead to the creation of new classes of materials that can be used to rapidly screen for those diseased states of cells which are associated with increased cell stiffness. The project will also provide outstanding opportunities to educate the next generation of STEM students and researchers, including Native American youth in the Ho-Chunk Nation and other children and parents in underserved communities.


This project explores the interactions of anisotropic and reconfigurable biomaterials based on chromonic liquid crystals with mammalian cells. The research will investigate the use of chromonic liquid crystals as primitive, synthetic exoskeletal materials, with a focus on understanding the interplay of hydration, osmotic pressure and mechanical interactions with red blood cells. These fundamental insights will inform the interpretation of measurements of the shape-response of single red blood cells dispersed in chromonic liquid crystals, providing new insights into how these novel biomaterials share strain with red blood cells. We will test the hypothesis that individual red blood cells differ in mechanical properties and exhibit distinct shape-responses in the liquid crystals. The overall approach to these challenging questions relies on close integration of experiment and modeling. The use of liquid crystals as biomaterials to strain living cells such as red blood cells has the potential to provide new ways to rapidly identify cell-to-cell variation in the mechanical properties of single cells in a population. The numerical methods developed in this project will be broadly useful for studying complex fluid-body interactions encountered in a variety of materials-related disciplines.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Materials Research (DMR)
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Randy Duran
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Cornell University
United States
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