NSF awards $8 million renewal grant to CPLC

Siv Schwink

The CPLC at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is jointly directed by Gutsgell Professor of Physics Taekjip Ha (L) and Swanlund Professor of Physics Klaus Schulten (R).
The CPLC at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is jointly directed by Gutsgell Professor of Physics Taekjip Ha (L) and Swanlund Professor of Physics Klaus Schulten (R).
Scientists have only begun to unravel the vast complexity of living systems: their evolution is the output of hierarchically organized adaptive dynamics that range from planetary scales and billions of years down to the nanometer and femtoseconds.

At the Center for the Physics of Living Cells (CPLC), a National Science Foundation (NSF) Physics Frontiers Center founded six years ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a team of interdisciplinary scientists have tackled an ambitious program of in vitro and in vivo cellular research that is shedding new light on the inner workings of living systems.

The CPLC faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and visitors are physicists, bioengineers, biologists, and chemists who are pushing the boundaries of their specializations. Investigating cells and populations of cells at multiple length scales, they have made major advances at the leading-edge of their field, in imaging, molecular manipulation, computational modeling, molecular dynamics simulation, and theory. In the center’s first six years, CPLC-supported research generated 225 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Now the CPLC has received an $8 million 5-year grant renewal from the NSF, to continue its research, education, and outreach missions.

CPLC co-director and Gutsgsell Professor of Physics Taekjip Ha comments, “We have only just begun to understand the physics of living systems. Bridging our understanding from in vitro to in vivo biological processes, learning how structure, organization, and DNA dynamics influence cellular functions and the stability of the genome, and how molecular motors interact and coordinate within crowded cells—and framing these investigations within multi-cellular populations—this will require new physical tools and a major coordinated effort to meet new experimental and theoretical challenges. The CPLC is uniquely poised at the forefront of this emerging field of research.”

Alongside its ambitious program of research, the CPLC offers an extensive educational outreach program serving a large number of scholars and researchers in the physical and biological scientific communities at the U. of I. and beyond, while actively promoting diversity in physics. In its first six years, CPLC Summer School trained 206 students from 94 different institutions worldwide in leading-edge research tools and methods. It also offered a campus-level physical biology boot camp for the scientific community at the U. of I., a weekly seminar series, and several summer programs for junior-high and high-school science teachers that featured curriculum development projects. CPLC also sponsors a graduate student research network, among many other efforts.

The CPLC Teaching Fellows Program provides pedagogy training and K-12 outreach experience for two CPLC graduate students each year. This opportunity enables students to build and maintain successful University/K-12 partnerships into the future, to better compete for grants that require an outreach component and to improve their ability to communicate science to diverse audiences.

CPLC co-director and Swanlund Professor of Physics Klaus Schulten attributes the center’s successes to the diverse training of its faculty, postdocs, and students: “The Center is a unique place—we have built a close-knit community of theorists and experimentalists from several complementary fields to focus on unsolved problems in the physics of living cells. These problems are strategically selected for their potential to advance technologies for biomedical and biological physics research. And we can already see the impact of our work. Today, single molecule imaging in vitro and in live cells is routinely performed in biological laboratories around the world with technologies developed here and taught in our outreach programs.”

The CPLC faculty includes Ha, Schulten, Aleksei Aksimentiev, Yann Chemla, Karin Dahmen, Nigel Goldenfeld, Ido Golding (at Baylor), Martin Gruebele, Seppe Kuehn, Thomas Kuhlman, Zan Luthey-Schulten, Sua Myong, Paul Selvin, Steve Sligar, and Jun Song.


Recent News

  • Events

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working in dark matter research have gotten together and planned a celebration of Dark Matter Day (October 31), just a few days early. A free screening of the visually stunning documentary, Seeing the Beginning of Time, will take place at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) on October 24, 2017, at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A session with a panel of experts. This event is open to all, though seating is limited.

Seeing the Beginning of Time is a 50-minute visually stunning journey through deep space and time, co-produced by the NCSA, and Thomas Lucas Productions. The trailer is viewable on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=5P0vfe5dC5A.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), through its Division of History of Chemistry, has an award that acknowledges these greatest of strides: the Chemical Breakthrough Awards are presented annually in recognition of “seminal chemistry publications, books, and patents that have been revolutionary in concept, broad in scope, and long-term in impact.” These awards are made to the department where the breakthrough occurred, not to the individual scientists or inventors.

This year, the ACS honored the discovery of “J-coupling” (also known as spin-spin coupling) in liquids, a breakthrough that enabled scientists to use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to identify atoms that are joined by a chemical bond and so to determine the structure of molecules.

  • Looking back
  • Astrophysics
  • Astrophysics/Cosmology
  • Astronomy
  • Numerical Relativity

Today’s historic joint announcement by the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Europe-based Virgo detector of the first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars is doubly noteworthy. It’s also the first cosmic event observed in both gravitational waves and light—some 70 ground- and space-based observatories observed the colliding neutron stars. This is arguably the biggest moment to date in “multi-messenger astronomy.”

In a press release issued by LIGO and Virgo collaborations, National Science Foundation Director France A. Córdova comments, “It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe. This discovery realizes a long-standing goal many of us have had, that is, to simultaneously observe rare cosmic events using both traditional as well as gravitational-wave observatories. Only through NSF’s four-decade investment in gravitational-wave observatories, coupled with telescopes that observe from radio to gamma-ray wavelengths, are we able to expand our opportunities to detect new cosmic phenomena and piece together a fresh narrative of the physics of stars in their death throes.”

Well before the development of today’s innovative technologies supporting this simultaneous gravitational-wave and optical observation, early research in numerical relativity at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign helped to lay the theoretical foundation for it. In fact, many features of the discovery had been predicted in the early computational simulations of Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stuart Shapiro and his group.

  • Research
  • Astrophysics
  • Astrophysics/Cosmology

A team of scientists using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), the primary observing tool of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), was among the first to observe the fiery aftermath of a recently detected burst of gravitational waves, recording images of the first confirmed explosion from two colliding neutron stars ever seen by astronomers.

Scientists on the DES joined forces with a team of astronomers based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) for this effort, working with observatories around the world to bolster the original data from DECam. Images taken with DECam captured the flaring-up and fading over time of a kilonova – an explosion similar to a supernova, but on a smaller scale – that occurs when collapsed stars (called neutron stars) crash into each other, creating heavy radioactive elements.

Two scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are members of the DES collaboration, Professors Joaquin Vieira of the Departments of Astronomy and of Physics and Felipe Menanteau of the Department