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2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists

Angela Belcher

Please describe the work that you are doing that you consider to be the most innovative and of the greatest likely long-term significance.

In my group we are using nature as our guide to make novel electronic and magnetic materials and to pattern materials on nano length scales. We have integrated approaches from several scientific disciplines including materials chemistry, inorganic synthesis, surface chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry and electrical engineering. Our goal is to adapt the conditions and control mechanisms found in nature to non-biological inorganic materials such as size constrained magnetic and semiconductor materials. The use of ‘biological’ materials to process the next generation of microelectronic devices provides a possible solution to resolving the limitations of traditional processing methods.

Our strategies to synthesize and manipulate these materials on the nanometer length-scale could impact a variety of technologies, including; electronics, health care, separations, sensors and coatings. The electronics industry, in particular, faces substantial technological challenges to the future miniaturization of electronic devices. We are developing new approaches to synthesis, patterning and interconnecting metal, electronic and magnetic materials on nanolength scales in order to design and investigate next generation materials and devices for electronic and medical applications (Nature 2000, PNAS 2001, Science 2002, plus 6 patents filed 2001-2002). Long term potential application of these materials would include optoelectronic devices, LCDs, detectors, nanometer scale computer components, biological implants, neural prosthetics, long term storage and preservation of genetic information and vaccines.

We have developed a radical new biologically-inspired approach to construct spatially complex quantum dot and quantum wire heterostructures and supermolecular assemblies consisting of inorganic and biological materials. To identify the appropriate compatibilities and combinations of biological-inorganic materials, a combinatorial library of genetically engineered bacteriophage was used to rapidly select peptides that could not only recognize, but also control the growth of specific inorganic materials. We developed a molecular tool kit, using a non-covalent self-organizational approach, which has the potential to offer even greater flexibility in materials synthesis and assembly than current synthetic routes. To construct this molecular tool kit, libraries containing a billion random peptide inserts were used to identify both peptide sequence and structure recognition for the inorganic materials studied. The phage display approach provides an experimental means to link the peptide-substrate interaction with the DNA that encodes that interaction. This genetic combinatorial approach significantly enhances process optimization in a way that is very different from optimization methods typically carried out in the electronics industry. Proteins that select specific inorganic particles are sequenced, cloned and genetically engineered for higher affinity binding.

Using phage display and combinatorial peptide evolution, peptides have been identified that select for and bind to specific nanocrystal and nanowire substrates, such as magnetic (Fe3O4. Co, CoPt and FePt) and semiconductor quantum dots (ZnS, CdS, CdSe, GaN, GaAs) and silicon nanowires. We have used selected and evolved peptides to template and organize ZnS, CdS, Co, CoPt and FePt nanoparticles at room temperature (Nature 2000 and patents pending). The peptide and phage direct the spatial organization of the nanocrystals into liquid crystals and hybrid self-supporting molecular films (Science 2002) which could function as electronic and magnetic "building blocks." In addition we have been evolving whole organisms (bacteria) to function as materials factories to synthesize stable semiconductor quantum dots. So far we have engineered bacteria to produce two sizes and colors of semiconductor nanoparticles (patent pending). We have also been exploring the use of ribosomes and RNA templates to program the formation and self-assembly of novel nanostructures. The biological “programming” created by these biological materials provides a novel synthesis route to unique nanostructures that cannot be created any other way and to essentially demonstrate the nanometer-scale hierarchical control routinely exhibited by living systems.

Please see: http://belcher10.mit.edu/research/research.html

Brief Biography

Angela Belcher is a materials chemist with expertise in the fields of biomaterials, biomolecular materials, organic-inorganic interfaces and solid state chemistry. Belcher’s interest focuses at interfaces, which includes the interfaces of scientific disciplines as well as the interfaces of materials. Her research team is using Nature as a guide to make novel electronic and magnetic materials and to self assemble these materials on nano-length scales. She received her B.S. in Creative Studies (with highest honors) with an emphasis in biochemistry and molecular biology from University of California Santa Barbara. She continued her education at UCSB and earned a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry (1997) under the direction of Professors Galen Stucky and Daniel Morse. Following a year of postdoctoral research in electrical engineering at UCSB with Professor Evelyn Hu, Belcher joined the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1999. She is also a faculty member of the Texas Materials Institute, the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Biology and the Center for Nano and Molecular Science and Engineering. Dr. Belcher was promoted to Associate Professor in 2002. In the Fall of 2002, Dr. Belcher will join the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering. She is also a co-founder of the company Semzyme, Inc., a company that focuses on biologically based routes for environmentally friendly synthesis and assembly of technologically important materials. Semzyme holds 6 of patents that Dr. Belcher has filed at University of Texas. Dr. Belcher also lends her expertise to numerous businesses and governmental agencies as a consultant. She also sits on the advisory board of five scientific journals.

Dr. Belcher gained an international reputation in the field of nanoscience as a result of the publication of her work in the prestigious journals Nature and Science. She has received recognition for her leadership through voluminous media reports including Forbes magazine, the Washington Post, the Wall Street journal, MSNBC, and NBC nightly news. Her reputation has extended to the general science community and the lay public as a highly sought after speaker with key note invitations coming from organizations as diverse as the National Academy of Sciences and the Texas Cattlemen’s Association. A particular source of satisfaction for Dr. Belcher has been the numerous invitations by student groups throughout the country to have her as their annual distinguished lecturer.

Some of Dr. Belcher’s recent awards include 2002 Technology Review TR100 (top 100 young innovators), 2001 Packard Fellow, 2001 Wilson Prize in Chemistry from Harvard, 2001 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, 2001 Harrington Fellow, 2000 Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE), 2000 Beckman Young Investigator Award, 2000 and 1999 IBM Faculty Fellowship Awards, 1999 DuPont Young Investigator Award, 1999 Army Research Office Young Investigators Award.