Fellowship for physics professor’s biomaterials of the future research

School of Physics professor who is creating novel biomaterials inspired by living systems has been awarded a £1.8m research Fellowship to deliver frontier research.

Lorna Dougan, Professor of Physics at the School of Physics and Astronomy, has received the award from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the public body that directs government research funding. The UKRI Frontier Research Fellowship is a Horizon Europe guarantee scheme for successful awardees of the prestigious European Research Council Consolidator Fellowships.

The fellowship is entitled “MESONET: Exploiting in situ protein unfolding to understand and control mesoscopic network formation”.

Previous research by Professor Dougan’s team led to a number of exciting discoveries in the field of soft matter and biological physics. Her team use a powerful combination of experimental and modelling techniques, including protein engineering, single molecule biophysics, rheology and structural studies using x-ray and neutron scattering. She has revealed that mesoscale properties of networks can be controlled through manipulation of the mechanics of nanoscale protein molecules.

;MESONET: Exploiting in situ protein unfolding to understand and control mesoscopic network formation”.

By understanding the design rules of protein networks we can create biomaterials which will offer powerful solutions for a range of applications.

By controlling the response of proteins to force, the architecture and mechanical properties of biomaterials built from the proteins can be predictably designed and controlled. Manipulation of nanoscale protein mechanics offers a powerful new route to control the formation of networks in biomaterials, offering exciting new possibilities.

My vision is to uncover the rich complexity of mesoscale protein network formation and exploit this to create novel biomaterials

A major challenge in soft matter and biological physics is to construct a theory that connects the mechanical properties of an individual biopolymer and the collective response of a network of such biopolymers. While advancements have been made in the characterisation of biopolymers and their networks at the nanoscale and macroscale, the physics which describes the translation of mechanical properties across scales remains elusive. Lorna’s vision is to unlock this complexity by making use of Nature’s bionanomachines-proteins as model systems, which possess evolutionary evolved stability and function, and which can be exploited to achieve control of mesoscale network formation.

Professor Dougan said: “We will develop a powerful suite of experimental and modelling tools which provide unprecedented access to force propagation and mesoscale network formation. A key strength of my approach is that the role of nanoscale changes and modifications in network architecture can be decoupled, so that they can be individually controlled to influence the network properties.”

Lorna Dougan research

The multiscale mechanics of protein networks will be explored to create biomaterials with different architectures which respond to force in different ways.

Lorna’s team will actively collaborate with researchers at a number of UoL’s and national research centres including the Bragg Centre for Materials Research, the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology, the ISIS neutron and muon facility and the Diamond Light Source.

Lorna said “This frontier science will deliver novel experimental and modelling tools for the soft matter and biological physics community, uncover the fundamental physics which describes the translation of mechanics across scales and provide exciting possibilities for the design of soft matter materials for future applications”.

Professor Dougan, an EPSRC Public Engagement Champion will continue her work on developing creativity-led public engagement activities, providing opportunities for wide engagement and impact.