A Major Grant for Bio-based Polymer Research

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Synthetic polymers — think plastic and its chemical cousins — are among the foundations of modern life. The ubiquity of such petroleum-based materials has everything to do with their combination of strength, flexibility, and chemical inertness, the last being a characteristic that also makes them durable. Given the environmental impact of plastics and the fact that petroleum deposits are finite, one grand challenge is to develop a new realm of sustainable bio-based, high-performance alternatives to petroleum-based polymers. Harnessing nature to make these materials will be an enormous undertaking, requiring a dramatic change in how polymers are made. 

To support such an effort, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has named UC Santa Barbara and UC Los Angeles joint partners in the BioPolymers, Automated Cellular Infrastructure, Flow, and Integrated Chemistry: Materials Innovation Platform (BioPACIFIC MIP). The five-year, $23.7 million collaboration is part of the NSF Materials Innovation Platforms (MIP) Program and has a scientific methodology reflecting the broad goals of the Materials Genome Initiative, which aims to develop new materials “twice as fast at a fraction of the cost.” BioPACIFIC MIP is one of two MIPs awarded this year, the second being led by Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia (GlycoMIP).

“We are extremely honored and pleased to have been named the lead institution in this NSF Materials Innovation Platform grant to develop novel soft materials,” said UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang. “This exciting project recognizes and leverages several complementary, overlapping areas of expertise at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, and significantly expands our existing longtime partnership established through our respective California Nanosystems Institutes. This new MIP project holds great promise in terms of addressing the grand challenge of discovering high-performing polymeric replacements for petroleum-based materials. I congratulate Director and Principal Investigator Javier Read de Alaniz, Co-PI Craig Hawker, and all of our participating colleagues, both on our campus and at UCLA, on this very proud moment.”

“This new MIP grant is a major milestone for our campus,” said Rod Alferness, Dean of the UCSB College of Engineering. “It recognizes and builds on our strength in collaborative materials research and will enable UCSB, working with UCLA, to become an international hub for the development of new high-performance bio-based polymers that may one day favorably impact life around the globe.” 

“This new opportunity builds on UCSB's strengths in materials science, which is at the interface between engineering disciplines and the natural sciences,” said Pierre Wiltzius, Dean of the College of Letters & Science. “Together with our partners at UCLA and other users of the new tools, it will increase our footprint and knowledge in the important area of biopolymers, and in general materials relevant to biology and medicine. I am looking forward to seeing great, impactful discoveries emerge.”

"NSF is excited to support this new MIP focusing on the convergence of materials research and biology on two University of California campuses," said Linda Sapochak, Director of the NSF Division of Materials Research. "The BioPACIFIC MIP is designed to advance fundamental science toward sustainable material development, which is important for society."

"The MIP uses a new modality of research and education/training inspired by the Materials Genome Initiative, creates a scientific ecosystem that shares knowledge, and will welcome users nationwide when it is fully operational," said Charles Ying, NSF Program Director who oversees all MIPs funded by NSF.

The BioPACIFIC MIP leverages the facilities, expertise, and experience of UCSB and UCLA, partners since 2000 in the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), which has headquarters at both campuses. It will include faculty and affiliates — thirteen from UCSB and seven from UCLA, supported by seven scientific staff. BioPACIFIC MIP will impact a large number of students and researchers at UCSB, UCLA, and across the country in the fields of materials science, biology, chemistry, and engineering. This next generation of researchers will share tools, samples, data, software, and know-how for the acceleration and collective advancement of science and technology, with a focus on societal impact. 

BioPACIFIC MIP is dedicated to identifying microorganisms that can be used as biological “factories” to generate the building blocks of bio-based plastics having superior properties to existing petroleum-based polymeric materials. It is envisioned as a closed-loop scientific system comprising every aspect of bio-based polymeric material development: design and discovery, building, testing, and learning, with feedback loops built into the system. Researchers will be welcomed from around the nation to develop, characterize, and engineer new materials based on merging synthetic biology with material synthesis. 

“Our goal is to be the bridge between fundamental and applied research, driving collaboration with industry and establishing Southern California as an economic driver for biomaterials research and innovation” said UCSB materials professor Hawker, Director of the CNSI and co-PI of BioPACIFIC MIP.

“The CNSIs at UCLA and UCSB were established [in 2000] as two nodes of the same entity,” said UCLA professor, CNSI Associate Director, and BioPACIFIC MIP Co-director Heather Maynard. “I see this as a perfect partnership, because we have complementary characterization tools and complementary expertise, and when we put them together, we can make a user facility that will be unprecedented in the science it will enable and the services it will provide.”

Experts in biosynthesis will markedly change how yeast, fungi, and bacteria use their biological factories to generate building blocks, and will work closely with experts who specialize in cutting-edge polymerization technology, material characterization and polymer physics, and simulation. This collection of know-how will be coupled with an automated, high-throughput living bioreactor platform and robotic automation to rapidly prepare libraries of bio-based polymer materials. Integration of these platforms with computer modeling and machine learning, as well as user access to a robust facility infrastructure at UCSB and UCLA, both of which house state-of-the-art fabrication, characterization, and screening tools, will further the process of optimizing these plastics derived from living organisms. 

 “We aim for BioPACIFIC to provide users from an extensive array of academic and industry partners with the tools and technology guidance needed to make new breakthroughs in the area of biomaterial synthesis, even if they themselves do not have the necessary expertise,” said Tal Margalith, Executive Director of the UCSB operation.

“Unlike many of our collaborative grants, which solely support on-campus efforts, BioPACIFIC will focus on building enabling tools and knowledge bases to bolster the biomaterials community across the nation and the world, said UCSB mechanical engineering professor Megan Valentine, who leads the characterization group. (See Element 4 below.)

“Nature has an expansive range of functional building blocks, and we now know it’s possible to synthesize them into better macro-materials, like polymers,” says UCSB professor of chemistry and BioPACIFIC MIP Read de Alaniz, who is also associate director of the CNSI at UCSB. “We will be extracting blocks from nature that you can’t access in any other way and then using synthetic routes to combine them into materials that have properties that don’t currently exist.”


The BioPACIFIC MIP will serve as an innovation collaborative broken into four sections — In-House Research, External Users, Education, and Knowledge Sharing — while the scientific mission will be organized into four interconnected Elements, as follows:

Element 1: Synthesis Biology and Living Bioreactors — Researchers will focus on three areas in identifying and developing promising biomolecule building blocks: 1) accelerating discovery of novel natural compounds, which can be added to a growing Materials Library and screened as starting systems for an array of biomaterials, (2) accelerating production of targeted natural monomers at scale through in-line bioreactor automation, and (3) rapid engineering of microbial hosts for the production of both known-commodity monomers and new monomers, along with the chemical or genetic manipulation of microorganisms for inline polymerization. 

The BioPACIFIC MIP will be the first user-facility in the nation to interface automation and high-throughput experimentation across both synthetic biology and material synthesis for rapid biomaterial discovery and development.

Element 2: Automated Synthesis/Materials — Element 2 researchers will develop new technologies and use existing advanced technologies — including various types of advanced additive manufacturing (3D printing) to enable the design, optimization, and reproducible synthesis of new materials built from micro-organisms identified in Element 1. Robotic handling and automation of synthetic and purification steps are safer and will enhance processing speed, remove user-to-user variability, and allow non-experts to synthesize polymers.

“Right now, a student in my group can carry out about two reactions a day” said Maynard. “With the MIP rapid-throughput system, we’ll be able to do fifty to one hundred experimental reactions per day. A student will be able to prepare the number of polymers in a week that had previously taken them more than a half a year. I am very excited about that.”

Element 3: Hierarchical Computational Tools — Processing new biomaterials and profiling their characteristics are time- and labor-intensive, and that is without exploring the nearly limitless design space enabled by rapid-throughput development of new bio-molecules. Element 3 researchers will use computational tools, including simulation and machine learning, to characterize new monomers and polymers, improve existing ones, identify and specify desirable material properties, and suggest appropriate chemistries and processes to achieve them, or to improve the effectiveness of the living bioreactors used to produce targeted bio-materials.

Simulations will be used to model the molecular structures and chemistry of new materials — from the atomic scale to the macro-scale — and suggest how design criteria can be met. Dedicated, broadly accessible databases overlaid with machine-learning algorithms will be integrated to help close the design loop, optimize materials design, and provide constant feedback among explorations of the design space and desirable material properties.

Element 4: Characterization/Structure-Property Relationship Determination — Element 4 researchers will overlap significantly with Elements 1 and 2, said Valentine, “to develop a predictive and mechanistic understanding of how composition influences structure and properties to improve the synthesis and formulation.”

Researchers are developing a rapid-screening tool for microrheology, a process used to examine flow and plasticity characteristics at extremely small scales, and UCSB will have a state-of-the-art x-ray scattering instrument, which can provide an unparalleled fifty-fold increase in speed and sensitivity compared to existing non-synchrotron-based systems. UCLA will be home to a cutting-edge microcrystal electron diffraction system (microED), which will allow researchers to image bio-derived molecules within minutes, in contrast to the hours or even days needed to capture the same data using conventional techniques.

Training the Next-generation Workforce

An important component of the MIP is to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers in interdisciplinary biomaterials discovery and high-throughput experimentation. A focus on outreach and fellowships will bring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars into BioPACIFIC MIP facilities to receive training and help drive investigations. 

The project’s organizers will proactively engage budding researchers who represent the diversity seen in California. They plan to assemble a cohort where half the fellows are women and underrepresented minorities.  Fellows will have access to a cluster of educational offerings and mentorship opportunities. One component, a weeklong “summer school” led by experts from industry, academia, and national laboratories, will provide guidance to fellows, facility users, and undergraduate and graduate students. 

“People have been wanting to move toward sustainable, bio-based polymer materials, but it’s really challenging to move away from petroleum-based ones, which we already know how to engineer into high-performance materials,” says Read de Alaniz. “The Holy-Grail question is how do we engineer high-performance bio-based materials? That hasn’t been identified yet. That is our goal.”

For more information, news, and updates on the BioPACIFIC MIP, please visit visit biopacificmip.org.


Artist's concept illustration depicts the transformation resulting from using bio-based micro-organisms as the building blocks for better polymers.

Artist's concept illustration depicts the transformation resulting from using bio-based micro-organisms as the building blocks for better polymers. Illustration by Lillian McKinney