Synthetic biologist receives DARPA Young Faculty Award

University Park, Pa. -- The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently presented its Young Faculty Award to Howard Salis, an assistant professor in Penn State's colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Engineering.

Salis' research lab is developing nucleic-acid therapeutics to selectively kill pathogens. These nucleic acids potentially could be designed and manufactured more quickly than a traditional vaccine or protein-based therapeutic, he explained. "They can be used to defend against biological weapons or new pathogenic strains of bacteria," Salis said.

"We use statistical thermodynamics to predict nucleic-acid sequences that will target and kill a particular strain of pathogenic bacteria, while leaving the other healthy bacteria in our gut unharmed."

Overall, Salis' laboratory focuses on the design and optimization of synthetic genetic systems -- the genetic code that programs life. "We develop methods to predict which DNA sequence will cause a microbe to carry out a desired activity," he said. "We use these methods to construct synthetic microbes for applications in bioenergy and human health."

His lab's methods also are being used by thousands of scientists and engineers around the world. More information on his laboratory's research can be found at http://salis.psu.edu.

Salis joined Penn State after finishing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California San Francisco and earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He holds joint appointments in the university's Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Chemical Engineering departments.

Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, noted that Salis' work is one example of research in the college that might surprise some -- often fundamental science projects do not, at first blush, appear to have direct implications for agriculture.

"Many of our scientists are pushing the boundaries of new ideas and technologies, and their breakthroughs frequently lead to application in our everyday lives," he said. "To my knowledge, this is the first time an agricultural sciences professor at Penn State has received the Young Faculty Award from DARPA. We are pleased that he has been recognized for his important and extremely promising research."

DARPA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense, has a history of fundamental breakthroughs that have altered defense and the world as we know it. Our nation's global technological leadership is partly a result of the enormous contribution that defense innovation has made.

The agency's purpose, Salis noted, is to look far into the future and fund research that will significantly advance the capabilities of the military. "Its research advances often positively impact all of society," he said. "For example, DARPA funded the first scientists to create the Internet as a way to communicate during a nuclear war."

The agency was created in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik and the ensuing space race provided the impetus to create a high-level defense organization to formulate and execute research and development projects that would expand the frontiers of technology beyond the immediate and specific requirements of the military services and their laboratories.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010