UC Berkeley receives $20M to establish chemistry innovation center

UC Berkeley campus with view of the Bay
Jessica Gleason /File
File photo of UC Berkeley campus with a view of the Bay.

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UC Berkeley was awarded a five-year, $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to establish a Center for Genetically Encoded Materials, or C-GEM.

The center is one of nine NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation, or CCI, nationwide. C-GEM works with 14 researchers from six different universities, including UC Berkeley. Its goal is to “tackle” how to make polymers possessing both a defined sequence and defined length, said Alanna Schepartz, director and principal investigator of C-GEM, in an email. She added that this would restructure ribosomal polymers and is “one of chemistry’s greatest challenges.”

According to the center’s website, its approach to the “Holy Grail level” issue is to utilize repurposed forms of ribosomes.

“The problem is that the chemical diversity of these natural bio-polymers is very limited,” Schepartz said in the email. “We want to use the machine that makes proteins inside the cell to make non-protein polymers.”

The grant was awarded to C-GEM in two stages by the CCI. According to Schepartz, the first stage was created as a way to promote innovation through combined effort and emphasized building rapport among research teams.

Projects were created with the goal of fostering teamwork in mind.

“By bringing together researchers from across disciplines with different perspectives, we can pursue truly transformative science,” Schepartz said in the email.

The program would initially provide a three-year grant during Phase I to not only ensure that their research was feasible, but also provide a time period for team members to adjust to working with one another.

According to Schepartz, the researchers had to restructure their team to work more efficiently together.

“It’s easy for them to recognize a group of investigators with great ideas, but it’s harder to determine if the group can accomplish more together than as individuals,” Schepartz said in the email.

The $20 million grant researchers recently received was part of their Phase II award.

The Phase II funding allows researchers to further pursue their work in depth and broaden their work’s reach.

“We can pursue far more ambitious goals,” Schepartz said in the email.

She added that their team intends to use the grant to bolster its education and outreach programs, including undergraduate summer research opportunities once on-campus research resumes.

Schepartz also said the researchers plan on employing their grant and working with the company Eterna to create an online game that allows players to configure RNA molecules according to a prescribed shape.

According to Schepartz, C-GEM intends on promoting a collaborative research environment for students through mentorships and opportunities to gain perspectives from other disciplines and C-GEM labs.

“We hope that C-GEM can be a model for training the next-generation of scientists to excel in an increasingly interdisciplinary world,” Schepartz said in the email.

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KellyNguyen_DC.