N.C. A&T Researchers to Examine Microbial Communities in New NSF Center 

08/10/2022 College of Science and Technology, Biology

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Aug. 10, 2022) – North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University faculty will be part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Duke University to undertake an ambitious endeavor to understand and improve the microbial communities that inhabit the structures in which people live, work and play – what scientists call the “built environment.”  

The Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering, or PreMiEr, aims to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches that promote building designs for preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses while encouraging beneficial microorganisms. 

PreMiEr is funded by a five-year, $26 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), renewable for a second five-year, $26 million term. The Duke center is one of four new Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) announced by the agency today.  

“This center touches on the struggles any parent or caregiver undergoes because they want to make the best decisions about what their loved ones are exposed to,” said Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke and the director of PreMiEr.  

“We want to be able to go into hospital rooms or other closed environments and devise treatment strategies for unwanted microbes,” Gunsch added. “That’s something that is achievable in the short term. For the long term, we want to develop the tools, procedures and knowledge base needed to identify and define what a healthy microbiome looks like and devise approaches for promoting those healthy microbiomes across a wide range of built environments.” 

Human beings spend more than 90% of their time within built environments — the homes, offices, cars, hospitals, stores and other manmade enclosures that underpin modern society. Yet very little is known about the ever-present but largely invisible populations of microorganisms (built environment microbiomes) that grow and live in these spaces. 

“PreMiEr represents a logical continuation in an ongoing collaboration between Duke and North Carolina A&T State University in microbiome research,” said Joseph Graves Jr., professor of biological sciences at N.C. A&T. “Researchers at A&T will be contributing much of the foundational research that will allow us to better understand the microbiomes of built environments.” 

PreMiEr will focus its efforts through an inclusive and collaborative lens to ensure that any of the questions asked or solutions pursued incorporate a wide range of cultural and societal viewpoints. This is reflected in the structure of the research center, which includes a core area for investigating the societal and ethical implications of microbiome engineering to innovate responsibly.  

“We have been particularly interested in how the novel environments that will be produced by long-term space travel will alter the human microbiome,” Graves said. “We have already performed one of the only long-term studies of the impact of microgravity and silver (a material used in water purification in space) on a microorganism.”  

Joining Duke and A&T in this effort are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and North Carolina State University. 

Of the more than 40 researchers, almost half are women and nearly 20% belong to historically marginalized groups in STEM, contributing to the development of a diverse workforce capable of tackling these critical challenges into the future. 

Joining Gunsch and Graves on the PreMiEr leadership team are four distinguished faculty from neighboring North Carolina institutions: 

  • Jill Stewart, the Philip C. Singer Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health 
  • Jennifer Kuzma, the Goodnight-NCGSK Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at N.C. State 
  • Anthony Fodor, professor of bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte 

The NSF ERC program supports convergent research that will lead to strong societal impact. Each ERC has interacting foundational components that go beyond the research project, including engineering workforce development at all participant stages, fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion where all participants gain mutual benefit, and creating value within an innovation ecosystem that will outlast the lifetime of the ERC. The program was created in 1984 to bring technology-based industry and universities together in an effort to strengthen the competitive position of American industry in the global marketplace. 

“For decades, NSF Engineering Research Centers have transformed technologies and fostered innovations in the United States through bold research, collaborative partnerships, and a deep commitment to inclusion and broadening participation,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., director of NSF. “The new NSF centers will continue the legacy of impacts that improve lives across the Nation.” 

Media Contact Information: jmhowse@ncat.edu