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Beltramo Receives NSF CAREER Grant to Research Key Interactions in Biological Membranes

Peter Beltramo in lab coat and eyewear in the foreground with lab students looking at computer screens in the background

Peter Beltramo

Assistant Professor Peter Beltramo of the Chemical Engineering Department is the principal  investigator for a team receiving a five-year, $592,332 grant from the prominent National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. The NSF funding will support Beltramo’s project, titled “Understanding the interplay between lipid composition and biomolecule transport in biological membranes,” which comprises a pathway of fundamental research that could enable the development of such breakthroughs as advanced drug delivery systems, biosensors, and other biomimetic materials.

According to the NSF, the CAREER Program funds its “most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the missions of their departments or organizations.” As such, successful proposals integrate both research and education activities for early career faculty to build a foundation of leadership.

As Beltramo says about the basis for his CAREER research, “The phospholipid membrane is the barrier that divides the interior and exterior of cells. It is laden with membrane-bound objects such as proteins and ion channels which are under constant motion and dictate the functioning of the cell.”

Beltramo adds that “Unraveling the role of the phospholipid membrane and the significance of high concentrations of membrane proteins in biological signaling processes offers the potential for discovery of new phenomena relating to how cells communicate, transport material, and orchestrate a whole host of essential processes.”

For example, says Beltramo, “Developing technologies that leverage the heterogeneity and high concentrations of ion channels would enable multiplexed biosensing with improved signal-to-noise and throughput. However, [such research] brings in the added complexity of changing elastic properties of protein-laden membranes, membrane deformations, and crowding effects that alter transport characteristics.” 

As a consequence, says Beltramo, “This [CAREER] project aims to understand how the properties of the phospholipid bilayer in biologically relevant membranes alter the spatiotemporal dynamics of membrane-bound objects. A novel experimental platform to fabricate robust artificial mimics of cell membranes and quantitatively measure their properties will be extended to incorporate leaflet asymmetry and membrane-bound colloidal particles.”  

Important preliminary work for this project was performed by Oscar Zabala and Paige Liu, graduate students in the Beltramo lab.  

Beltramo says that the ultimate objectives of his CAREER research are to provide insight into how biological membranes regulate intracellular transport by: evaluating the change in elastic properties in membranes mimicking different types of cells; determining the modification of lateral dynamics as membranes become increasingly covered with peripheral objects; and quantifying the concurrent alteration in trans-bilayer ion transport.
The award will also support several ongoing outreach and educational efforts on and off campus as spearheaded by Beltramo’s lab. Particularly, in coordination with the UMass STEM Education Institute, a half-day workshop for Pioneer Valley middle and high school math and science teachers will be developed to link concepts from engineering, chemistry, and biology into hands-on educational activities that can be integrated in the classroom. The project will also encourage the involvement of underrepresented students in STEM by funding a stipend for a student from a local community college to gain summer research experience.

The Beltramo Research Group focuses on applying fundamental engineering principles to understand and engineer interfacial processes. “Interfaces are everywhere,” as Beltramo explains, “so our research has applications ranging from creating biomimetic materials for drug delivery to stabilizing emulsions in the food and petroleum industry to fabricating novel self-assembled materials using nanoparticles. We use well-defined model experiments to reproduce the essential physics of these intricate problems, building in complexity through a bottom-up approach.” (March 2020)

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