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International Research Center for Fundamental Scientific Discovery

Completed Projects

2020-2022 Cohort

Functional Polyelectrolyte Complex Micelles with Elastin-like Peptide Segments

Sébastien Lecommandoux, CNRS

Matthew Tirrell, UChicago

This proposal combines the innovative work of the Bordeaux team on elastin-like polypeptides (ELP) with the experience of the UChicago team on polyelectrolyte complexation of nucleic acids with the eventual goal to create new delivery vehicles for nucleotide therapeutics. The project will begin by examining the temperature sensitivity of these objects enabled by the inclusion of ELP components. The second part of the project will examine specifically the packaging of nucleic acids. Altogether, this project combines innovative thermosensitive polyelectrolytes based on ELP-b-polypeptide copolymers, leading to a new generation of PECM with pH and T-responsiveness and possibly to a smart mechanism of delivery of charged biomacromolecules by physical inversion.

HgTe Quantum Dot Electronic Structure and Infrared Sensing

Philippe Guyot-Sionnest, UChicago

Emmanuel Lhuillier, CNRS

Semiconductor nanoparticles are extraordinary materials that present broadly tunable optical spectrum from the UV to the THz. This arises from the wide range of material that can be synthesized by the colloidal approach and the quantum effect of the size, hence they are called “Colloidal Quantum Dots” or CQD for short. Within the quantum sensor technologies, CQD devices have now useful performance, but they do not yet match the best devices based on the very expensive HgCdTe epitaxial materials. The two teams will conduct a systematic study of the energy position of CQDs using the two complementary methods of electrochemistry and photoemission, which are respective strengths and expertise of the two groups. They have also developed complementary experimental setups to probe carrier relaxation using ultrahigh bandwidth electronic measurements and ultrafast time resolved optical spectroscopy.

Modeling transcriptional bursting in space and time

Mounia Lagha, CNRS

Ovidiu Radulescu, CNRS

John Reinitz, UChicago

In order to generate a functional organism, cell fate decisions must be taken at the right place and at the right time. Decades of genetic studies in Drosophila have dissected the gene regulatory networks responsible for the establishment of precise patterns of gene expression. Our project is concerned with a particular class of transcription factors (TFs) called pioneer factors. The binding of pioneer factors facilitates the subsequent binding of classical transcription factors. Here, we propose to build on that

work by decoding the impact of two Drosophila pioneer factors, Zelda and Opa,  on transcriptional bursting and the consequences of such control on the spatio-temporal precision of gene expression.

New Ideas in the Search for Dark Matter

Dan Hooper, UChicago

Pascuale Dario Serpico, CNRS

Albeit increasingly precise measurements have allowed cosmologists to determine that more than 80% of the matter content of the universe is dark matter (DM), little is known about the DM properties beyond its gravitational interaction. With our project, we design a twofold strategy to get further insight onto the nature of DM by: a) Scrutinizing the space left for WIMP DM matter with current telescopes and provide accurate predictions for the sensitivity of future instruments to DM signals. The faintest detectable galaxies and their “dark” counterparts represent very promising targets to probe the WIMP paradigm with multi wavelength, observations. b) Developing the reach for constraints on or detection possibilities of exotic signals, via purely gravitational probes and multi-wavelength techniques in gravitational waves (GW) and high-energy astrophysics. This objective is motivated by the renewed studies concerning exotic scenarios such as Primordial Black Holes (PBH), and their cosmological and astrophysical applications, notably in the GW channel.

Role of the Trigeminal System in Odor Perception

Claire Martin, CNRS

Leslie Kay, UChicago

The branch of the trigeminal nerve that is in the nose is responsible for cool of mint, the heat of chili peppers, and the tickle of CO2 bubbles. Despite its ubiquity in smelling, interactions between olfactory and trigeminal sensing are rarely acknowledged or studied in olfactory research, particularly in physiological analysis of this system. The Martin group in Paris will use cutting-edge chemogenetic and imaging techniques in mice to monitor OB activity and activate or inhibit trigeminal activity in response to stimulation by odor mixtures. The Kay group at UChicago will use behavioral and electrophysiological methods in rats to study perceptual effects of trigeminal odors in mixtures and to probe the effects on olfactory system processing as compared to the absence of trigeminal influences. The Martin group will use results of preliminary behavioral studies (currently underway in the Kay group) to inform selection of odorants and odor mixtures, and the Kay group will use the methods developed by the Martin group to inactivate trigeminal nerve endings in the OB.

Was the United States invented by a French philosopher?

Céline Spector, CNRS

Paul Cheney, UChicago

Could it be that the influence of Montesquieu on the Founding Fathers' ideas has been largely overlooked? A mere historiographic study of influential philosophical thought in the late eighteenth century shows that the predominant importance of Montesquieu's philosophy is not met with extensive and careful academic works capable of finding and then analyzing the way in which the Founding Fathers borrowed from his philosophy. Yet, such an analysis would permit us to understand why Montesquieu was considered an authority and even, according to the very words of the Founding Fathers, an oracle of the science of politics. Furthermore, this research would finally allow to lend cachet within the European academic world to a masterpiece of political philosophy, the Federalist papers, whom no less than Tocqueville once praised and which remains the very secular bible of the American Republic.

2019-2021 Cohort

Characterizing mm-Wave Loss for On-Chip Spectrometry

Erik Shirokoff, UChicago

Alessandro Monfardini, CNRS

In astronomy, observing millimeter (mm) ad sub-mm astronomy has historically been challenging due to atmospheric absorption bands. Yet, observations at these wavelengths contain a wealth of information which can further our understanding of the universe and provide a vital complement to near-future, large optical instruments such as the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) that U. Chicago and the national labs are currently building.

This project will combine the expertise in kinetic inductance detectors at the Institut NEEL in Grenoble with the University of Chicago team's extensive experience in developing spectrometers such as SuperSpec to fabricate and test crystalline silicon devices.

Coupling active and passive liquid crystals

Teresa Lopez-Leon, CNRS

Juan de Pablo, UChicago

In cells, thousands of nanometer-sized molecular motors coordinate themselves and intertwine similar protein components that operate either as scaffold constituents or force-generators to accomplish mechanical tasks such as cell motility, division and replication. The assembled active material exhibits sought-after properties such as

autonomous motility, internally generated flows and self-organized beating. A much simpler active system can be replicated in vitro using a recently developed method where bundled polymerized tubulin filaments (microtubules) are mixed with kinesin motors. When this biomimetic material is confined to an interface, the microtubules develop long range orientational order. However, unlike conventional nematic liquid crystals, continuous energy consumption leads to chaotic flows often termed as “active turbulence”. Understanding and controlling these chaotic flows is not only relevant to fundamental problems of pattern formation in biology but could also pave the way to the design of “smart” active materials.

Discovering common principles in learning to predict in biological systems

Stephanie Palmer, UChicago

Arvind Murugan, UChicago

Aleksandra Walczak, CNRS

Guiding behavior in a dynamic environment requires biological systems to make rapid predictions about the future state of sensory inputs because of the significant response delays present in all biological transducers. This predictive behavior is learned over many iterations of biological sensing and honed over evolutionary time. For the adaptive immune system, we have proposed the optimal form of the repertoire for a specific static pathogen distribution, but the rules governing its learning during somatic evolution have yet to be revealed. While these operate with different microscopic machinery, at different time scales, and with different signaling mechanisms, our hope is to identify common biophysical strategies for solving the prediction problem.

How is sensory information transformed into appropriate motor output?

Ellie Heckscher, UChicago

Tihana Jovanic, CNRS

Somehow animals transform sensory information about the environment into a set of patterned muscle contractions that drive behavior, but the structure and function of these circuits is poorly understood at the cellular and synaptic level. Gaining this knowledge is absolutely required for understanding the genetic basis of behavior, and has implications for evolution, biomedicine, and robotics.

We propose to study the structure and function a neural circuit underlying sensorimotor behaviors in the moderately complex nervous system of larvae of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. We expect to identify one of the first complete sensory-to-motor circuits described at single neuron resolution.

Search for Light Dark Matter with DAMIC-M

Paolo Privitera, UChicago

Mariangela Settimo, CNRS

Dominique Thers, CNRS

The experimental search for dark matter (DM) particles has been guided for several decades by the compelling weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP) hypothesis. A surprisingly unexplored possibility is the existence of light DM particles with masses 1 eV – 1 GeV, which may have escaped detection because the small kinetic energy that they carry cannot be efficiently transferred to the much heavier nuclei. 

Current experiments have limited sensitivity to DM-electron interactions, and a light DM particle may have well escaped detection. In this context, DAMIC-M's (Dark Matter in CCDs at Modane) innovative detector technology, which is capable to detect a single electron with high resolution, provides unprecedented sensitivity to the DM hidden sector.

Particles, Molecules, & the Universe
Planet Earth