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Northeastern chemistry faculty awarded $390K NSF grant for cephalopod research

by Cayman Somerville, Environmental Science, 2017

Bio-inspired materials chemistry is a fascinating field that focuses on understanding natural biological systems and mimicking their properties in synthetic materials. In November the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Dr. Leila Deravi, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemistry Biology, a $389,999 grant over the next three years to investigate the “mechanisms behind adaptive coloration in cephalopods.”

Deravi joined Northeastern University’s faculty this semester, after 2 years as an Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire in Chemistry and Materials Science. She received her PhD in Chemistry at Vanderbilt University in 2009 and worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow in bioengineering at Harvard University for the next four and a half years. Her lab at Northeastern University, the Biomaterials Design Group, investigates the molecular mechanisms behind adaptive coloration in cephalopods and human protein networks, and uses information from this research to develop new materials that may interface or enhance human performance.

In September, her team also secured a grant from the U.S. Army Research Office to observe how pigmented nanostructures influence the photophysical properties of cephalopods, enabling the rapid changes in their coloration. While these animals have been studied for decades, the small molecule pigments and optical proteins that regulate the broad range of visible color displayed during camouflage remain largely unknown. “The NSF grant is funding biochemical analysis of the skin proteins and pigments that are in the cephalopods,” Deravi stated.

The Biomaterials Design Group dissects squids acquired from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and works with collaborators at UNH to analyze their biochemical properties. “We have customized extraction protocols, where we are able to directly take out the pigmented nanostructures from squid optical organs and then isolate the proteins from there,” Deravi said. “Essentially, we are trying to determine what are the components responsible for dynamic color and how do they work.”

Professor Deravi is particularly interested in the ability of cephalopods to transform their 3D texture and color in hundreds of milliseconds. “The fact that they change color so fast means that there’s probably many more things that are going on inside the animal than we actually [understand].”

Furthermore, there is a significant outreach component tied to the NSF grant, which is of great interest to Deravi. She collaborates with the Joan and James Leitzel Center at UNH to coordinate teacher workshops, bringing teachers from across New England to teach them how to isolate pigments during squid dissections and how to teach their students about bio-inspired research.

When asked about the applications for her research, she listed numerous examples, such as low energy optical displays, cosmetics, textiles, and paints. “Our whole idea is that once we identify what these small molecules and proteins are, then we can start to think about integrating them into synthetic materials that can be powered to sense different environmental factors and respond to them through a change in visible color just like the cephalopods do. This capability could ultimately affect the way we interact with the environment around us.” Deravi stated.

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