Breakthroughs in the Science of Slime: The World’s Thinnest Two-Dimensional Coatings that Corral Biofilms have Broad Applications

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In the past three years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $32 million in funding for research led by faculty at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology that expands human understanding of the microbial world.

Govind Chilkoor, Ph.D., SD Mines research scientist, examines a biofilm on a steel sample.

In the past three years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $32 million in funding for research led by faculty at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology that expands human understanding of the microbial world. The research focuses on the tiny microbes that attach to surfaces to form a slimy and yet strong layer which is commonly known as a biofilm.

The broad range of studies on biofilms and the thin coatings that control them, funded by these grants, have potential for applications across many sectors of industry and society including energy generation, new medicines, wastewater purification, agriculture, corrosion resistance, new materials and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The research effort of the newly announced $20 million NSF grant titled “Building on the 2020 Vision: Expanding Research, Education and Innovation in South Dakota” will be led by researchers at SD Mines, SDSU and USD. The funding was awarded through the South Dakota Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (SD EPSCoR) and the South Dakota Board of Regents. The state of South Dakota is providing $4 million in matching funds for the grant. The Governor’s office of Economic Development and Board of Regents are providing $3 million and there is a $1 million match from the state universities involved in the grant including SD Mines, University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University.

Robb Winter, Ph.D., department head and professor of chemical and biological engineering at SD Mines, will lead the team of researchers from Mines and partnering institutions to develop nationally recognized two-dimensional (2D) materials for the South Dakota Biofilm Science and Engineering Center being created in the state.

Co-principal investigator, Venkata Gadhamshetty, Ph.D., P.E, along with Rajesh Sani, Ph.D., Bharat Jasthi, Ph.D., and Saurabh Dhiman, Ph.D., will lead a research team at SDSMT to study the interaction between biofilms and the 2D coatings. “These thin coatings of 2D materials can be used to control biofilms that cause microbial corrosion,” said Gadhamshetty. “The research also explores 2D material coating technology to grow beneficial biofilms that boost the growth of plants with less chemical fertilizers.”

This NSF grant adds to South Dakota’s high-tech workforce and research infrastructure. The grant allows for the hiring of additional faculty researchers and scientists at Mines and partner institutions. It pays for critical scientific equipment that can be used for years to come. This research opens the door for increased collaboration with industry. This project also makes Mines and partner universities more competitive when applying for future federal research funding. “This level of funding is unheard of at SD Mines. This level of fundng would be significant at any institution, even top tier research universities,” says Winter.

Mines’ President, Jim Rankin, Ph.D. adds, “SD Mines is proud to lead this cutting-edge research which has huge potential benefits for the state and regional economy. This is an investment with the potential to pay itself back many times over in the creation of new start-ups and high-tech jobs that spin-off from the discoveries that are made.”

A second grant for a total of $6 million titled “Data Driven Material Discovery Center for Bioengineering Innovation” enables researchers at SD Mines, Montana State University, the University of Nebraska - Omaha and the University of South Dakota to catalogue and organize the large amounts of the data generated in the study of biofilms. This new center will bring together diverse infrastructure in bioscience, computer science and material science to analyze and draw conclusions from the large amounts of data gathered in this research.

A third $6 million NSF grant announced in 2017, known as the BuG ReMeDEE initiative led by Dr. Sani is making headway in research into the life cycle and makeup of microbes found in the depths of the Sanford Underground Research Facility and other extreme environments. The project’s full title is Building Genome-to-Phenome Infrastructure for Regulating Methane in Deep and Extreme Environments or BuG ReMeDEE. Read more on the initiative here.

These grants also include education components in partnership with Black Hills State University and other regional schools that boost K-12 science education in the state and increase opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research. The grants also include funding of training programs for K-12 teachers to implement new STEM based hands-on curriculum for their students.

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