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Mechanobiology is an emerging field that examines the effect of mechanics on biological development of living systems.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Penn was just awarded a $24 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a science and technology center. The virtual center will concentrate on engineering mechanobiology, an emerging field of science that focuses on how mechanics influence biological development.

The center will be led by two co-directors: Medical School and Engineering professor Yale Goldman and Engineering professor Vivek Shenoy. They and other members of Penn’s faculty will collaborate with colleagues from Washington University in St. Louis, Alabama State University, Boston University, Bryn Mawr College, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.

The center will have an administrative hub at Penn, but will rely on faculty and researchers from various partner institutions.

It will host three main integrated research streams within the field of mechanobiology: examining forces at the molecular, cellular and organismal level. Associate faculty members at each level work cooperatively to further knowledge in the field as a whole.

“The real goal of the center is to tie these different levels together and to not only obtain this foundation to understand the basic biology, but to use this biology to build novel devices,” said E. Michael Ostap, a professor of physiology and director of the Pennsylvania Muscle Institute.

Researchers hope to use the knowledge gleaned from their integrated research in order to create practical products. Some believe that they could eventually create pesticides that function by responding to mechanical vibrations, or even organs-on-chips, which allow for drug testing under very specified conditions.

“If you can understand how nature has solved the problem of sensing mechanics in different systems then you can engineer and design new systems to introduce new technologies, new controllers for existing systems,” said Robert Mauck, a Medical School professor.

The center is also heavily focused on education and outreach within the field.

“Graduate students are the main focus of the educational program,” said Rebecca Wells, a Medical School professor and the director of the center’s educational program. “But we’ve really felt that if we want to create a community of integrated mechanobiologists, then we need to include post docs, who are already in our labs, we need to include undergraduates, and we need to include the faculty themselves.”

Currently, possible plans include programs for high school teachers and summer boot camps and online courses for students. Wells said the undergraduate programs are aimed at attracting people to the graduate programs.

As the center attracts and connects more researchers in the field, the leaders are hopeful that the wealth of academic knowledge will prompt new ideas.

“The outcomes of this are hopefully products that change our world based on a better and improved fundamental understanding of mechanobiology,” Mauck said.

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