Scientists at Virginia Tech have received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue their fight against airborne pathogens by developing engineered living systems for indoor air monitoring.

An associate professor of mechanical engineering, Bahareh Behkam and her team will use the funding to further develop engineered living systems for indoor air monitoring. Currently, there is a lack of sensitive, specific, affordable, and easy-to-use airborne pathogen monitoring technology and an overwhelming need for innovative approaches to address this challenge. 

“Many of the emerging pathogens are transmitted by air, COVID-19 being a good example,” said Behkam, the John R. Jones III Faculty Fellow in the College of Engineering. “Beyond pathogens, there are also harmful chemicals and bioterrorism agents that we are concerned about, but affordable and sustainable living sensors that can do detection in the air was an area that was understudied and underdeveloped area.”

Crossing disciplines

Titled “Programmable Nano-Bio-Hybrid Living Systems for Continuous Monitoring of Airborne Pathogens,” this project crosses disciplines to integrate bio-hybrid microbotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, infectious disease transmission, bacterial genetics, biosecurity, safety, and ethics.

The project’s main goal is to develop a device that continuously monitors the presence of various airborne pathogens and captures them within bacterially produced engineered living materials. Mobile bacteria-based sensors constantly survey the engineered living material matrix, looking for the captured pathogens of interest. Once detected, the bacterial sensors produce a human-detectable signal recognizable to the public as a threat.

Behkam received the grant through the NSF’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program, which funds interdisciplinary projects that propose transformative solutions to critical national needs. Her lab, the Micro/NanoScale Biotic/Abiotic Systems Engineering Laboratory, previously developed bio-hybrid engineered systems for disease detection and targeted therapy.  

Collaborative work

She is collaborating with both Virginia Tech and Johns Hopkins University researchers:

  • Linsey Marr, Charles P. Lunsford Professor and University Distinguished Professor
  • Anna Duraj-Thatte, assistant professor of biological systems engineering
  • Zhaomin Yang, professor of biological sciences
  • David Gracias, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University
  • Gigi Gronvall, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University

The grant will help the project move smoothly through its various phases, but it could not have reached this stage of development without seed funding. In February, Bekham received an Engineering Faculty Organization-Opportunity (EFO-O) grant from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS).