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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher seeks to use a composite of carbon nanofibers and biomolecules to mimic living biological cells.

Dr. Michael Simpson, along with Dr. Donald Ingber of Harvard Medical School and Dr. Jeffrey Byers of the Naval Research Laboratory, was awarded $75,000 by the National Academy of Sciences to explore how nano-scale structures can interact with biological proteins.

“We’re trying to make synthetic structures that will mimic the function of real cells,” Simpson said. “The idea is to recreate the skeleton of a cell using carbon nanofibers, and then add proteins to the structure that react to the environment.”

Simpson said the structure, called a “multiplexed dynamic molecular force spectroscopy array,” can transmit mechanical and chemical signals on a microscopic level.

He likened the nanofibers to telephone poles along the road.

“We’re going to string biological molecules between the fibers, like telephone wires,” Simpson said, “then add proteins to the strings that perform important cellular functions.”

The scientists plan to “tug” on the carbon fibers to see how the structure reacts to mechanical forces and determine whether the structure can change in response to the forces, he said. Their goal is to analyze how mechanical and chemical signals can be integrated at the nanometer scale to generate biological functions.

Simpson is a member of ORNL’s Condensed Matter Sciences Division and a research theme leader at the lab’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. He also holds a joint appointment with the UT College of Engineering.

Simpson said the project could improve basic knowledge about engineering, physics, biology and chemistry.

This signaling ability will help researchers understand the tiniest details of cellular function, and could be applied in environmental sensors, pharmaceutical discoveries and testing, or advanced electronics.

The grant is from the Keck Futures Initiative, established by the Keck Foundation, to provide NAS-administered seed money for projects that bring scientists and engineers from a variety of backgrounds together to work on innovative science and research.

Simpson said only 10-12 projects are chosen annually to receive the $75,000. His group is one of the few to twice receive the grant, which is in its second year.

For more information about the grant, visit the NAS Web site at:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Battelle Memorial Institute.