This article was originally published here.
The U.S. National Science Foundation has announced funding for 12 projects under the Using the Rules of Life to Address Societal Challenges program. Totaling over $27 million in investment, this funding supports the use of knowledge learned from studying the Rules of Life — the complex interactions within and between a broad array of living systems across biological scales, and time and space — to tackle pressing societal challenges, including clean water, planet sustainably, carbon capture, biosecurity and antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics.
One of the funded projects comes from Alper Bozkurt, ECE Professor and ASSIST Center Co-Director. His research remotely monitors the behavior of freshwater mussels and could be used to alert researchers to the presence of toxic substances in aquatic ecosystems.
“The enormous opportunity to apply biological principles to solving the biggest problems of today is one we cannot take lightly. These projects will use life to improve life, including for many underprivileged communities and groups.”Susan Marqusee, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences
Bozkurt and other selected researchers will work towards using their biological systems to monitor contaminants such as heavy metals and PFAS in drinking water; improving food security by increasing soil nitrogen and developing wheat that is more resistant to disease and tolerant of drought; enhancing carbon capture in forests through the use of environmental DNA; developing techniques to use synthetic biology safely; borrowing risk management strategies from living systems for use on societal risks; and creating “protocells” to measure micronutrient deficiencies in undernourished populations to name a few.
This use-inspired research will be translated into societal impact through engagements with resource managers and community representatives, as well as through education, training, and outreach efforts. Several awardees will work with underserved populations, including Indigenous tribes, rural communities and urban populations impacted by drinking water crises, and groups underrepresented in STEM. The institutions represented include a historically Black college and university, a Hispanic-serving institution, an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution, and universities within EPSCoR jurisdictions.
The NSF has awarded Bozkurt’s research grant under the name “AI-Supported Bionic Bivalves for Surface Water Monitoring based on Freshwater Mussel Response to Environmental Change: North Carolina State University, award 2319389.”
“We’ve basically designed a custom Fitbit to track the activities of mussels,” says Bozkurt.
Researchers will combine environmental sensors on freshwater mussels and artificial intelligence to monitor water quality and identify possible contaminants, thus aiding in decontamination.
Learn more about the Using the Rules of Life to Address Societal Challenges program and find a full list of awards at nsf.gov.