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NSF announces FY 2018 EFRI topics

May 2, 2017

The National Science Foundation has concluded its FY 2018 topic selection process for the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program and plans to release a solicitation in summer 2017 on the following new topic areas: 

  • Chromatin and Epigenetic Engineering
  • Engineering Frontiers of Soft Robotics

Read a brief introduction to the topics in the paragraphs below or in PDF format. For more information, please contact

Chromatin and Epigenetic Engineering

The engineering of biology at the molecular and cellular level represents a grand challenge, both for engineering and for biology, and holds the promise of potentially transformative impacts. Precise engineering of cells at the epigenomic level may enable us to combat disease, engineer crop plant improvements, and discover new solutions to persistent environmental problems. To realize this vision of engineering biology, we need to be able to engineer or control the expression of the systems of genes that confer these organismal traits, or phenotypes.

Chromatin is the complex of DNA, RNA, and proteins found in the nucleus of cells, the physical manifestation of the chromosomes. While DNA encodes genetic information in its linear sequence, providing a blueprint for protein assembly, gene expression is critically affected by the spatial organization of chromatin. Global organization of chromatin within the nucleus can be influenced at the level of epigenetic regulation by chemical modifications of DNA and associated proteins (histones), as well as by chromatin dynamics, electrostatics, and other physicochemical interactions. The chromatin nano-environment may modulate interaction of DNA with regulatory molecules, including transcription factors and non-coding RNAs.

Understanding the regulation of the chromatin nano-environment has the potential to power the engineering of living systems and create new transformative strategies for the treatment of disease, solution of environmental problems, as well as uncovering new plant traits for the benefit of agriculture. To achieve such understanding requires:

  • development of novel nanoscopic technologies to manipulate, image and measure nanoscale chromatin structure, dynamics, and environment in live cells, enabling us to relate molecular modifications and interactions to chromatin structure and to phenotype;
  • systems-level modeling to understand epigenetic control of phenotype integrating molecular and physical data obtained in physiologically accurate physico-chemical environments;
  • application of these tools to engineer desired traits into a model system, such as a model of human disease, a crop plant or an energy-producing microorganism, to provide a meaningful test of the models and technology.

Engineering Frontiers of Soft Robotics

While proficient at repetitive tasks in a structured environment, traditional rigid robots fall far short of biological organisms in versatility and adaptability. To create robots that can achieve the remarkable functionality seen in the animal kingdom, or that can be physically worn by or implanted in humans, will require a re-engineering of power and information systems, the creation of new materials, and the formulation of new theories of movement and manipulation.

Robots with the mix of mobility, strength, and dexterity found in the natural world would allow unprecedented extension of human perception and action to inaccessible and hostile environments. Furthermore, wearable or implantable soft robots could mitigate disability or augment the natural abilities of the human body.

Driven by collaborations between experts in engineering, computer science, biology, material science, chemistry, and mathematics, a new field of soft robotics is emerging to meet these challenges, characterized by the use of highly compliant materials and structures.

While exciting soft robotics demonstrations abound, a fundamental engineering framework is needed to fully realize the promise of these pioneering results. Such a framework should include the following:

  • mathematical representations of highly compliant structures, and structures with extended soft interfaces suitable for real-time planning and control,
  • novel devices and architectures for distributed computation, sensing, and actuation, including hybrid devices combining synthetic materials and living tissue, and including the means for storing and distributing power and information, and
  • robust physical platforms for experimental model validation and rigorous proofs of concept.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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