NIH/NIGMS Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award

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Professor Chong Liu receives a highly prestigious Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA or R35) award from the NIH/NIGMS.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded Liu, an assistant professor of chemistry, $1.9 million over five years to work on electrochemically controlled microbial communities. 

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Inorganic nanomaterials meet microbiology, with electronic control.

The natural environment is intrinsically spatiotemporally heterogenous at both macroscopic and microscopic levels. What shapes such a heterogeneity includes the concentration gradients of biologically relevant chemical species in the extracellular medium including dioxygen, reactive oxygen species, as well as essential redox-active transition metals. While a significant amount of effort has been devoted to spectroscopically image these chemical moieties, our capability to spatiotemporally control their concentration distributions in the extracellular medium remains limited. This is especially the case for biofilms and microbiota, in which the microorganisms’ small length scales pose significant challenges for concentration modulation. The Liu group’s effort is to enable precise spatiotemporal control of chemical gradients in the extracellular medium of microbiology. Electrochemistry of inorganic nanomaterials transduces electronic signals into microscopic chemical gradients, mimicking and modulating the heterogenous environment of biofilms and microbiota. This multidisciplinary research will enable a deeper understanding of disease-related microbial systems and help to formulate strategies to combat diseases. 

The MIRA program supports investigators’ overall research programs through a single, unified grant rather than individual project grants. The goal is to provide investigators with greater stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs.

Liu received his B.S. degree in chemistry from Fudan University, China, where he synthesized mesoporous materials with Professor Dongyuan Zhao. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry at University of California, Berkeley, working with Professor Peidong Yang. His graduate study focuses on nanowire-based artificial photosynthesis, integrating nanomaterials and microorganisms. Before joining the UCLA faculty, Liu worked with Professor Daniel Nocera at Harvard University as a Lee Kuan Yew postdoctoral fellow. At Harvard he developed inorganic/bio hybrid systems of solar-driven CO2 and N2 fixation with the efficiencies higher than natural counterparts. In 2016, this work was published in Science of which Liu was the co-first author. 

An inorganic chemist, Liu’s research group has specific interests in electrochemical systems for energy, biology, and the environment. He joined the UCLA faculty as an assistant professor in 2017 and holds the Jeffrey and Helo Zink Endowed Professional Development Term Chair in Chemistry.  Liu was named one of 10 exceptional young scientists by Science News in 2017.   


Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,