Doctoral Training Partnerships: a range of postgraduate training is funded by the Research Councils. For information on current funding routes, see the common terminology at https://www.ukri.org/apply-for-funding/how-we-fund-studentships/. Training grants may be to one organisation or to a consortia of research organisations. This portal will show the lead organisation only.
Miniaturisation of electronic devices has been matched in recent years by a drive to create miniature Lab-on-Chip systems that can handle and analyse chemical and biological materials in tiny volumes. Ultrasonic standing-wave fields are a promising technology that can potentially achieve many of the functions required for Lab-on-Chip systems, including: pumping, mixing, cell lysis, cell sorting, and sonoporation (opening pores in cell walls to allow drugs or genetic material to enter). Most importantly, by establishing and shaping the acoustic field bacteria and other biological cells can be manipulated and levitated within fluidic devices. In contrast to other technologies, it is possible to manipulate thousands of cells at once without harming them. However, controlling these various functions and preventing interactions in the confines of a microfluidic system is challenging and prevents wider uptake of these technologies. Research is required to better understand how secondary effects interfere with the primary functions. One example is the disruption of manipulation by acoustic streaming (a movement of the fluid itself induced by the ultrasound). Using novel techniques such as surface structuring I will enable the streaming flows to be controlled, and put to practical use (e.g. to enhance diffusion for cell perfusion, and analyte diffusion in sensor systems). Initial modelling suggests that this approach could enhance streaming by a factor of 10, leading to applications in other domains such as micro-cooling systems. I will be researching several other key areas: The mechanical stimulation of cells with acoustic forces to direct the development of mechanically responsive cells such as stem cells; the integration of ultrasonic arrays into microfluidic devices for enhanced flexibility of manipulation; and ways to integrate multiple acoustic functions within a single disposable device. The fundamental research will both enable and be driven by the second focus of the fellowship, applications. Two applications that each have the potential to transform existing technologies will be developed: 1) Bacterial detection in drinking water: My team has recently proven that bacteria (who typically experience forces 1000x smaller than human cells) can be successfully concentrated in flow-through ultrasonic devices. As part of a European project we have used this to concentrate the bacteria in samples of water to enhance the detection efficiency. However, I believe that we could deliver around a 100-fold increase in sensitivity by using the ultrasound to drive bacteria directly towards an antibody coated sensor surface where they will be captured and optically detected. Deploying such devices widely would be very beneficial for detecting contamination of drinking waters, rivers, and industrial waste streams. 2) Drug screening system: I will create a system that forms arrays of tiny clusters of human cells. Cells cultured in this 3D environment behave more naturally than those grown on a petri dish. The cells will be held in place by acoustic forces, both levitated away from contaminating surfaces, and also held against a steady flow of nutrients over a period of several days. Drugs will be introduced into the flow, and an integrated laser based detection system will monitor the resulting metabolites produced by the cells. The advantage of this is that large numbers of drugs can be tested in parallel, identifying those that could be further developed. A strong motivation for this application is that by providing a representative model of human tissues it could reduce the number of animal experiments required for drug testing. Given the huge potential impacts of these and other related systems I will work closely with industrial companies that have experience of creating detection and analytical systems to bring our technologies into widespread use.
Synthetic biology accelerates the research and development of new biotechnologies by rigorously applying engineering design principles to the way we work with biological systems. The most prominent application of synthetic biology is the rational modification and redesign of living organisms like microbes for new efficient use in sectors such as energy production, biomaterials, biomedicine, drug production and food technology. Crucial to developing and applying synthetic biology is the rigorous quantification, modelling and analysis of synthetic biology designs. By using this engineering framework researchers aim to predict how engineered biological systems will operate. Despite many successes, it is still difficult to predict how engineered cells behave when new synthetic genetic information is added to these host cells. Key to the high failure rates in forward engineering in synthetic biology is the lack of high-quality data available on parts and devices. Without a holistic dataset reporting on performance of a biological part in its host cell, it is difficult to predict how it will behave when included in complex designs. The work proposed in this project seeks to address this by developing a novel workflow to obtain a richer-dataset on thousands of different parts and devices as they are implemented in bacterial host cells. To achieve this goal, a screening workflow will be established, that for the first time incorporates in vitro prototyping, with in vivo assaying and mass-spectrometry profiling to simultaneously capture how synthetic biology device design affects gene expression, expression load and host cell health, energy and growth. Measuring these multiple parameters in parallel will greatly enrich predictive models and ideally will lead to robust in silico predictions on performance characteristics such as growth rate and mutation likelihood. In this project, modelling will be developed specifically for this task and mass spectrometry will also be introduced as a state-of-the-art measurement tool. Both are new frontiers for synthetic biology. While this research will have a very wide impact and accelerate the many different future applications of synthetic biology, in this project it will be specifically used to tackle a high-value biomaterials application that would be unlikely to succeed without the strong engineering foundations this work provides. For this part of the project, predictions of gene expression and growth will be used to express a library of different functional proteins in engineered microbes and microbial consortia that can then be polymerised together to generate polyprotein biomaterials with programmable catalytic and material properties. For example, by combining silk proteins with lipase enzymes in biological polymers, advanced materials such as self-cleaning fabrics can be realised. While this materials work is intended as a showcase for the foundational methods developed in this project, it will no doubt lead to many future exciting applications and new industries in a rich variety of commercial, engineering and research sectors, from fashion and manufacturing to medicine.
The terahertz (THz) frequency region within the electromagnetic spectrum, covers a frequency range of about one hundred times that currently occupied by all radio, television, cellular radio, Wi-Fi, radar and other users and has proven and potential applications ranging from molecular spectroscopy through to communications, high resolution imaging (e.g. in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors) and security screening. Yet, the underpinning technology for the generation and detection of radiation in this spectral range remains severely limited, being based principally on Ti:sapphire (femtosecond) pulsed laser and photoconductive detector technology, the THz equivalent of the spark transmitter and coherer receiver for radio signals. The THz frequency range therefore does not benefit from the coherent techniques routinely used at microwave/optical frequencies. Our programme grant will address this. We have recently demonstrated optical communications technology-based techniques for the generation of high spectral purity continuous wave THz signals at UCL, together with state-of-the-art THz quantum cascade laser (QCL) technology at Cambridge/Leeds. We will bring together these internationally-leading researchers to create coherent systems across the entire THz spectrum. These will be exploited both for fundamental science (e.g. the study of nanostructured and mesoscopic electron systems) and for applications including short-range high-data-rate wireless communications, information processing, materials detection and high resolution imaging in three dimensions.
Quantum technologies promise a transformation of measurement, communication and computation by using ideas originating from quantum physics. The UK was the birthplace of many of the seminal ideas and techniques; the technologies are now ready to translate from the laboratory into industrial applications. Since international companies are already moving in this area, there is a critical need across the UK for highly-skilled researchers who will be the future leaders in quantum technology. Our proposal is driven by the need to train this new generation of leaders. They will need to be equipped to function in a complex research and engineering landscape where quantum physics meets cryptography, complexity and information theory, devices, materials, software and hardware engineering. We propose to train a cohort of leaders to meet these challenges within the highly interdisciplinary research environment provided by UCL, its commercial and governmental laboratory partners. In their first year the students will obtain a background in devices, information and computational sciences through three concentrated modules organized around current research issues. They will complete a team project and a longer individual research project, preparing them for their choice of main research doctoral topic at the end of the year. Cross-cohort training in communication skills, technology transfer, enterprise, teamwork and career planning will continue throughout the four years. Peer to peer learning will be continually facilitated not only by organized cross-cohort activities, but also by the day to day social interaction among the members of the cohort thanks to their co-location at UCL.