Adolphe Merkle Institute and US researchers partner to develop bio-inspired projects

Researchers from the Adolphe Merkle Institute (AMI) at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (USA), and the University of Chicago (USA), have been awarded two grants from the US and Swiss National Science Foundations that will allow them develop functional materials inspired by some of the most desirable substances found in nature.

Backed by funding of almost CHF 7 million over a period of five years, faculty and students will study and develop materials that mimic for example the sticky and durable caddisfly silk, the adaptable skin of sea cucumbers, and a substance that directs cellular behavior. The bioinspired materials produced by the researchers will ultimately be tested in soft robots, but they are expected to have a wide range of other practical uses.
A $5.5 Mio grant, awarded on September 1 by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the Partnerships for International Research and Education program (PIRE), supports the research and training activities at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Chicago. The corresponding actions in Fribourg are supported by a complementary CHF 1.5 million grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which became effective September 19. This is the first time that the SNSF is participating as a partnering agency.
The PIRE program is led by the NSF and aims at building research capacities through international collaborations, promoting excellent science, and tackling some of today's most pressing research questions.
In all, 12 faculty members from Case Western Reserve University, two from the University of Chicago and six from the AMI, and 15 PhD students (10 in the US, 5 in Switzerland) will contribute to the program. A key element of the US-Swiss collaboration is the exchange of student at all levels.  In addition to the PhD students, who will conduct a portion of their research in the respective partner country, the program will expand the exchange of bachelor students through internship programs in Cleveland and Fribourg.

Nature’s treasures
Materials used in this project will be tested in a worm-like robot that may one day burrow through the earth or building wreckage on search-and rescue-missions, crawl inside waterlines and oil and gas pipelines to inspect them and, if miniaturized, deliver a stent or remove plaque by crawling through a blood vessel.
“We’re studying materials and objects found in nature, then reducing the materials for practical use,” said LaShanda Korley, Climo Associate Professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve University and principal investigator on the project, which is scheduled to start this month.
Co-principal investigators are Jon Pokorski, assistant professor of macromolecular science and engineering, and Gary Wnek, the Joseph F. Toot Jr. Professor of Engineering and professor of macromolecular science and engineering at Case Western Reserve; and Stuart Rowan, Professor of molecular engineering and chemistry at the University of Chicago.
The Swiss team is led by Christoph Weder, Professor of Polymer Chemistry and Materials, and Director of the Adolphe Merkle Institute, as well as of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Bio-Inspired Materials. Weder, a former Professor of Polymer Science at Case Western Reserve, says “the research beautifully combines the scientific competences of the US and Swiss groups, and the exchange programs provide unique training opportunities for the students.” According to Weder, the training activities established by this PIRE complement and integrate with the student exchange programs and other training activities established by the NCCR, which is also headquartered at the University of Fribourg.

The research focuses on five areas:

  • Korley, Rowan, and AMI’s Nico Bruns, Professor of Macromolecular Chemistry, and Ulrich Steiner, Professor of Soft Matter Physics, lead the effort to develop nanocomposite materials. The materials will be based on spider silk, which, by weight and size, is far stronger than steel cables. They will also be based on caddisfly silk, a powerful and durable adhesive that underwater larvae use to build nets to capture food and glue together pebbles, shells and sticks for shelters.
  • Jeffrey Capadona, Associate Professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, Rowan and AMI’s Christoph Weder lead the study of materials inspired by the sea cucumber, squid beak, and pine cone, which would allow the robot to adapt to different environments and tasks. The sea cucumber’s skin is typically soft and pliable, but can become rigid as a defense mechanism against predators. The tip of the squid beak can cut through muscle and bone, but the fleshy part near the squid’s mouth is 100 times softer. The pinecone opens in dry air and closes when wet.
  • Wnek and Michael Mayer, AMI Professor of Biophysics, lead the efforts to build artificial neurons to control a robot. They and other collaborators will investigate the use polyelectrolyte fibers and gels that can carry an electric current or respond to magnetic fields.
  • Pokorski, Alke Fink and Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, Professors of BioNanomaterials at AMI, lead the development of mechanically adaptable functional fibers. They aim to mimic the extracellular matrix’s ability to provide adaptive structural and biochemical support to cells, enabling surrounding cells to differentiate or migrate to heal wounds.
  • Case Western Reserve’s Roger Quinn, the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Hillel Chiel, Professor of Biology, lead testing and coordinating the materials and controls in the worm robot.

The AMI investigators are all members of Switzerland’s National Center of Competence in Research Bio-Inspired Materials, an interdisciplinary hub for research, innovation, and education in the domain of “smart” materials whose function and design are inspired by nature.