Imagine using the principles of air traffic control to unlock the mystery of why animal cells grow.
Or how about applying the laws of genetics to solve problems in computer circuitry.
Who would fund such innovative, futuristic research?
Answer: the Department of Defense.
This summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Stanford nearly $5.3 million to create an unusual consortium of engineers and biologists to study how living cells communicate and develop. The goal is to help biologists resolve fundamental questions about how genes function, while providing engineers a unique biological model for designing intricate electronic circuits.
"It's a very far-sighted project," says Harley McAdams, principal investigator of the three-year DARPA program.
"We have a team of 10 Stanford faculty who are leaders in their respective fields and have demonstrated a capacity for collaborative research," he adds.
McAdams exemplifies the interdisciplinary nature of the DARPA project. A physicist by training, McAdams worked in the high-tech industry before switching to the field of genetics. He is currently a senior scientist in the Department of Developmental Biology in the School of Medicine.
The other nine project members are professors from such diverse departments as electrical engineering, chemistry, genetics - and even aeronautics and astronautics.
"We have an opportunity to look at cellular regulation in a broader context than has been done in the past," notes McAdams, "because we're integrating biological research with advances in other disciplines, such as computation and engineering."
He points out that a major objective is to develop new instrumentation capable of analyzing the extremely complex world of cell division and growth using four different organisms: zebrafish, fruit flies, Streptomyces fungi and the Caulobacter bacterium.