National Science Foundation awards FSU chemical engineer more than $1 million for bacteria research

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Jamel Ali, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering is flanked by, from left, Ph.D. student Tyler Gregory, postdoc Dr. Bobby Haney and Ph.D. student David Quashie Jr. in the lab at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in Tallahassee, Florida. (Mark Wallheiser/FAMU-FSU College of Engineering)Jamel Ali, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering is flanked by, from left, Ph.D. student Tyler Gregory, postdoc Dr. Bobby Haney and Ph.D. student David Quashie Jr. in the lab at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in Tallahassee, Florida. (Mark Wallheiser/FAMU-FSU College of Engineering)

A FAMU-FSU College of Engineering researcher has received more than $1 million to investigate bacteria-related dynamics in one of two new projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF has awarded two research grants totaling more than $1 million to support investigations that have the potential to impact societal health by supporting new diagnosis and treatment methods for diseases. One award is through FAMU and the other through Howard University, both historically Black universities, in a multi-institutional partnership with the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Jamel Ali, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and a Howard alumnus, is working with Patrick Ymele-Leki, interim chair and associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Howard University, to determine the role fluid flow has on the development and evolution of bacterial communities.

“Antimicrobial-resistant strains of bacteria are increasing, and if we want to develop new antibiotics and diagnostic tools to effectively identify and control their spread, we need to better understand what physical forces drive their drug resistance,” Ali said.

In the first investigation, Ali and Ymele-Leki will look at how various forms of fluid flow impact the process by which bacteria attach to each other to form complex communities. Findings could lead to new methods to control biofilm formation.

Biofilms are aggregates of bacteria that can attach themselves to surfaces. Examples include the dental plaque that forms on teeth or the slimy substance that builds up in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. In the medical field, biofilms play an important role in the development of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms that can cause severe infection.

Biofilms typically form in wet environments; however, little is known about how initial single and multicell interactions and fluid flow influence their growth and structure. The researchers hope the outcome of their work will provide a better understanding of how they develop and will lead to new diagnosis and treatment methods for problems caused by biofilms.

In the second NSF-funded project, Ali will develop new biological sensors using parts of bacteria, specifically the flagellum. He hopes to create nanoscale sensors capable of detecting very small changes in biological environments. By identifying the changes in local cellular regions within human cells, he hopes treatment options will be better identified.

“For both projects, for the first time, we will be using a set of specialized tools at both institutions that allow us, in real-time, to look not only at bacteria but also at their subcellular components and how they interact with their surroundings,” Ali said.

The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is a joint institution between Florida A&M University and Florida State University, providing students and faculty with the unique benefits of both an HBCU and a Research 1 university. It is the only joint College of Engineering in the country.

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