What goes on in a frog’s brain is one question among many that could bring millions in federal research dollars to UCSB and, if answered, could shape the technology of the 21st century.

The Army Research Office is awarding an initial grant of up to $50 million over five years to establish the Institute for of Collaborative Biotechnologies (ICB), a partnership between UCSB, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , and California Polytechnical Institute. The purpose of the institute is to develop the next generation of biotechnology.

“I believe, as many do, that this century is going to be the century of biology interfaced with nanotechnology and engineering in ways never been seen before,” said Daniel Morse, chair of UCSB’s Biomolecular Science and Engineering Program, who will serve as director of the institute. “Bio-engineering today means the development of materials for things like hip implants, but what we’re envisioning is far more Star Trek.”

ICB organizes collaborative research, both between the universities involved and its military and industrial backers, Morse said. Research teams from the universities, the army and the institute’s industrial partners will spend time in each other’s labs and maintain a close level of contact.

The institute is currently selecting projects for the first year of full-scale funding, which will begin in February 2004.Sixty percent of the overall funding will go to UCSB. MIT and Cal Tech will each receive 20 percent. Additional monetary support, the amount of which is still being determined, will come from industrial partners. At this point, UCSB will receive $8.4 million from the army annually.

Morse said his teams would focus on extracting secrets from nature and translating them into practical engineering solutions, something Morse had previously accomplished through his research on the molecular structure of pearls.

“The structure of pearls is a multi-layered structure that resembles the structure of a computer chip,” Morse said. “It was thought that this was built in the pearl layer by layer the way we would make a sandwich, but by studying the proteins and the genes that control this process, we discovered that biology uses a completely different mechanism to grow this material. That mechanism is now used by our colleagues in engineering and in industry to make semiconductors.”

The efficiency of biological systems, such as the human eye’s ability to detect a single photon of light, is of particular interest to researchers at ICB.

“The photosynthetic efficiency of green plants converting energy from sunlight into electric energy is nearly 100 percent. Compare that to our solar energy producers, which have 10 to 20 percent efficiency. There’s a lesson there; there’s a trick that biology is using,” Morse said

Research at ICB will also focus on the transfer of information in biological systems.

“The capability of a brain, even the brain of a frog, for massive parallel information processing – many pathways being used at once – far exceeds the best computer chip. In addition, these brain pathways can heal around an injury, like when some projectile enters the skull and takes out a whole chunk of brain tissue. The tissue doesn’t get restored, but neurons reprogram connections so the info processing capability that was knocked out can be handled by other pathways. If we could find out how the [brain operates], we could incorporate some of these lessons into the world of electronics,” Morse said.

Already researches have made advances in developing sensors capable of identifying viruses, biological molecules and cells, Morse said.

“Remember the anthrax assault a couple of years ago? A suspicious white powder was sent for analysis, and it would be days before they got back the results, and the results were ambiguous. This is horrendous. The discoveries that we’ve made in the last few months are making it possible to develop bio-sensors with sensitivity and accuracy far better than anything they’ve had before.”

To date, six industrial organizations – Aerospace Corp., Applied Biosystems, Becton, Dickinson and Company, Genencor International, Science Applications International Corporation, and IBM- have joined the partnership.

As well as improving the field of biotechnology, the additional funding will benefit UCSB students, Morse said.

“We, along with the Materials Research Laboratories and the NanoSystems Institute, are going to expand the undergraduate internship program. This can provide the training which students can use to identify opportunities for postgraduate work, whether it’s going to graduate school or into industry. This is not just a springboard [to future careers], but really an ‘open sesame,'” Morse said.

. Over 60 projects have been proposed by professors and students at participating universities and by the Army. The proposals will go through a two-stage review process. In the first stage, proposals are reviewed by an executive committee that includes experts in each of the fields as well as the deans and representatives of the colleges. Proposals recommended by this committee are then sent to the Army, which reviews them with an independent panel of experts before granting final approval.

“This new funding is building on efforts we’ve been carrying out over the last few years,” Morse said. “It’s enabling us to do new work that we previously haven’t been able to tackle because we didn’t have the resources. This is an enormous new capability to support research and people.”