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US Department of Defense SMART scholarship winner's focus is synthetic biology

Tue, 05/11/2010 - 6:25am
EurekAlert

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a prestigious scholarship to a graduate research assistant at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech.

Matthew Lux of Raleigh, N.C., a current student in Virginia Tech's Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology Ph.D. program, who holds a Bachelor's of Science degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, was selected to receive a scholarship by the Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program.

As a SMART Scholar, Lux will receive paid tuition and educational expenses, as well as a cash stipend each year for his remaining three years in the Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology program. Lux was sponsored by James Valdes, scientific advisor for biotechnology at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), the U.S. Army's principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering, and field operations, located in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

"With Matt's research contributions, this award will allow the ECBC to explore opportunities to leverage synthetic biology to strengthen the security of our nation," said Valdes.

Lux is a member of Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Associate Professor Jean Peccoud's Synthetic Biology Group (https://www.vbi.vt.edu/faculty/research_groups/synthetic_biology), where work is focused on streamlining the design and fabrication of artificial gene networks. Computer-assisted design of genetic systems is poised to bring significant benefits to the biomedical community and the biotechnology industry. However, the lack of calibrated genetic parts remains a major limitation. The group develops software, computational tools and high throughput imaging systems that allow researchers to take full advantage of calibrated genetic components and the potential of synthetic biology. Lux's research involves applying engineering principles to the development of synthetic DNA molecules that could be used as intelligent sensors or to deploy countermeasures to chemical and biological threats.

"It is important for the defense community to assess the biological risk that synthetic biology represents while evaluating how this emerging technology can be used to develop generic biological defense strategies," explained Peccoud. "This fellowship recognizes that Matt's work can serve a very important role in this evolution."

Since joining the Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology program, Lux has been supported by a fellowship from SAIC, a scientific, engineering, and technology applications company focused on work involving national security, energy and the environment, critical infrastructure, and health. Lux has been involved in the Synthetic Biology Group's ongoing collaboration with the MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government.

This partnership resulted in a peer-reviewed publication*, with Lux serving as one of the two lead authors. The paper proposes that adaptation of co-design methods for synthetic biology and details the development of an environmental sensing device that can detect the presence of harmful chemicals.

"[The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute] is a nationally recognized center of excellence in biodefense informatics, thanks to the innovative work of our researchers and students," said the institute's Executive Director Harold "Skip" Garner. "Gene synthesis technologies make it possible to translate this expertise into a new generation of physical devices."

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