A moth’s eye. A squid’s skin. A gecko’s foot.

hese rather mundane animal parts all contain super evolutionary properties that would make the X Men jealous and one day could save a U.S. soldier on a far off battlefield.
Just as likely is that one day these animal kingdom secrets of biology and structural engineering will open up doors to human experience that we can only imagine today. They have the potential to cure cancer, allow electric cars to cross the country without charging, and indicate who among us is best equipped to make life and death decisions.
A moth’s eye contains reflective material that is beyond anything known to humans. One day it could provide protection for soldiers in combat trying to evade enemy snipers.
A squid’s skin changes color with such diversity and speed that it could make traditional camouflage seem antiquated.
The gecko’s foot has adhesive’s that could allow robots and someday, humans to climb walls and sheer cliffs.
The list goes on and on, from shellfish calcium building qualities to the adhesive qualities of a single virus cell.

All these secrets are being unlocked by the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnology (ICB) centered on the UC Santa Barbara campus. The ICB, with affiliate labs and researchers at MIT and Cal Tech, is radically transforming how research is done at UCSB by bringing together biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers. The funding is coming from the U.S. Army with more than $118 million over the last decade to fund unclassified research in basic biology and engineering. In December the Army agreed to double down its investment, pouring $48 million into the ICB over the next three years.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the Army funding is in the area of brain injury and human body chemistry. Already researchers at UCSB have mapped out a methodology to identify traumatic brain injuries as well as later onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This technology holds huge potential for addressing one of the Iraq-Afghanistan Wars most debilitating features, as well as for addressing brain trauma injuries in civilian head trauma.

Additional research in this area, which is combining super Magnetic Imaging machines and new technologies for mapping brain impulses, is looking at microscopic changes in brain chemistry as humans make decisions, face crisis, or even tell a lie.

What is most dramatic at the ICB is that it is bringing together some of the brightest stars on campus and off to work together, including Nobel Prize winner Alan Heeger and MacArthur Prize winner Angela Belcher (see article on Angela Belcher )

One of the great ironies of the research is that with the exception of what was mostly an accidental demonstration during an ICB-Army conference in 2008 at UCSB there has been little controversy surrounding the research. The reason, according to ICB researchers, is that all military research at the University of California is unclassified and all is published. There is no secret research being done at UCSB and everything that is being discovered is being revealed as fast as it is found..

At the same time, almost all of the research at UCSB is aimed at saving the lives of soldiers in the field. It is not about winning wars and building better bombs, it is about making sure the soldier we send into the field has a fighting chance.

So for example, Angela Belcher’s research on creating smaller and more effective batteries is of interest to the Army because the modern soldier is increasingly a communications and data hub, carrying radios, GPS units, sensors and other electronic gear. It all needs batteries and it all needs batteries that are light and last a long time.

On the other hand, ICB research into the hard shell of the California mussel, which survives abrasive blasts from sands, could one day provide insights into building blastproof body armor.

The common theme in all this research is to find biological mechanisms in nature and determine if they can be applied to modern technology.

As co-director of ICB Steve Grafton explains, “The common mission of ICB is to use inspirations from biological systems to solve these basic challenges: How are materials designed in natural systems? How do organisms solve different networking problems? How are biological organisms made more resilient.”

David Gay, the ICB Director of Technology, says ICB research is 20 years ahead of its time. “What we have is engineers working on biology problems. What is happening here is you are taking engineers and their whole tool set of understanding systems and using that to analyze biological systems.”

Nobody epitomizes the multi-disciplinary approach and achievements at UC Santa Barbara more than ICB Director and Chemical Engineering Department Chair Frank Doyle. Doyle and his large group of graduate and post-graduate students are working on communication systems in nature that could be used in human sensor equipment. Doyle’s study of the circadian clock, the natural rhythm in nature of sleep and activity, has brought about new discoveries that not only include communication systems built from the method that cells use to communicate sleep and action, but also ways to overcome jet lag and identify PTSD. Also coming out of Doyle’s work outside of ICB is the invention of an artificial pancreas that could dramatically improve the lifestyle of diabetics.

To ensure the continued success of ICB and the bio-medical research that is spinning out of UCSB, the campus and state have committed to building a $74 million bioengineering building that will house ICB and the Center for Bioengineering, the hotbed of medical research at UCSB. The building should be inhabited by 2017.

The new building, by bringing researchers into closer collaboration, will accelerate scientific progress Doyle promises. He added, “This investment in campus resources reflects UCSB’s growing prominence in research at the interface of the life sciences and engineering. We already enjoy a reputation for research excellence in those fields but this investment will ensure that we continue to grow and excel in our endeavors as they require more complex laboratory facilities.”

So when you see the headline, “Army pays for Moth Research” don’t be fooled. Some day it will save a life.

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