Belcher sprinkled her talk with models and props, lined up on a table at the front of the 10-250 lecture hall, to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts and projects made possible by the intersection of biology and nanotechnology.
“I love controlling materials at the nanoscale using biology,” said Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering, materials science professor, and of the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. “We all know if you control materials at the nanoscale and you can start to tune them, then you can have all kinds of different applications.” And the opportunities are indeed vast — from building batteries, fuel cells, and solar cells to carbon sequestration and storage, environmental remediation, catalysis, and medical diagnostics and imaging.
The combined in-person and virtual audience of over 300 was treated to a light-up, 3D model of M13 bacteriophage, a virus that only infects bacteria, complete with a pull-out strand of DNA. Belcher used the feather-boa-like model to show how her research group modifies the M13’s genes to add new DNA and peptide sequences to template inorganic materials.
“How do we get to making nanomaterials that haven’t been evolved before?” asked Angela Belcher at the 2023 Mildred S. Dresselhaus Lecture at MIT on Nov. 20. “We can use elements that biology has already given us.”
Energy storage and environment
“How do you go from a DNA sequence to a functioning battery?” posed Belcher. Grabbing a model of a large carbon nanotube, she explained how her group engineered a phage to pick up carbon nanotubes that would wind all the way around the virus and then fill in with different cathode or anode materials to make nanowires for battery electrodes.
How about using the M13 bacteriophage to improve the environment? Belcher referred to a project by former student Geran Zhang PhD ’19 that proved the virus can be modified for this context, too. He used the phage to template high-surface-area, carbon-based materials that can grab small molecules and break them down, Belcher said, opening a realm of possibilities from cleaning up rivers to developing chemical warfare agents to combating smog.
Belcher’s lab worked with the U.S. Army to produce protective clothing and masks made of these carbon-based virus nanofibers. “We went from five liters in our lab to a thousand liters, then 10,000 liters in the army labs where we’re able to make kilograms of the material,” Belcher said, stressing the importance of being able to test and prototype at scale.
Imaging tools and therapeutics in cancer
In the area of biomedical imaging, Belcher explained, a lot less is known in near-infrared imaging — imaging in wavelengths above 1,000 nanometers — than other imaging techniques, yet with near-infrared scientists can see much deeper inside the body. Belcher’s lab built their own systems to image at these wavelengths. The third generation of this system provides real-time, sub-millimeter optical imaging for guided surgery.
Working with Sangeeta Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Engineering, Belcher used carbon nanotubes to build imaging tools that find tiny tumors during surgery that doctors otherwise would not be able to see. The tool is actually a virus engineered to carry with it a fluorescent, single-walled carbon nanotube as it seeks out the tumors.
Nearing the end of her talk, Belcher presented a goal: to develop an accessible detection and diagnostic technology for ovarian cancer in five to 10 years.
“We think that we can do it,” Belcher said. She described her students’ work developing a way to scan an entire fallopian tube, as opposed to just one small portion, to find pre-cancer lesions, and talked about the team of MIT faculty, doctors, and researchers working collectively toward this goal.
“Part of the secret of life and the meaning of life is helping other people enjoy the passage of time,” said Belcher in her closing remarks. “I think that we can all do that by working to solve some of the biggest issues on the planet, including helping to diagnose and treat ovarian cancer early so people have more time to spend with their family.”
Honoring Mildred S. Dresselhaus
Belcher was the fifth speaker to deliver the Dresselhaus Lecture, an annual event organized by MIT.nano to honor the late MIT physics and electrical engineering Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus. The lecture features a speaker from anywhere in the world whose leadership and impact echo Dresselhaus’s life, accomplishments, and values.
“Millie was and is a huge hero of mine,” said Belcher. “Giving a lecture in Millie’s name is just the greatest honor.”
Belcher dedicated the talk to Dresselhaus, whom she described with an array of accolades — a trailblazer, a genius, an amazing mentor, teacher, and inventor. “Just knowing her was such a privilege,” she said.
Belcher also dedicated her talk to her own grandmother and mother, both of whom passed away from cancer, as well as late MIT professors Susan Lindquist and Angelika Amon, who both died of ovarian cancer.
“I’ve been so fortunate to work with just the most talented and dedicated graduate students, undergraduate students, postdocs, and researchers,” concluded Belcher. “It has been a pure joy to be in partnership with all of you to solve these very daunting problems.”