Biophysics efforts at UT are led by Dr. Jaan Mannik. His research involves understanding how self-organizing processes take place in a prokaryotic cell. Of particular interest are the localization of cell division proteins, segregation and organization of DNA, and growth of the Gram-negative cell wall. His work includes the development of micro- and nanofabricated environments to carry out long term high resolution microscopy of bacteria in their physiological conditions and the development of electrical and mechanical actuators and sensors interfacing cells on such lab-on-a-chip devices. Mannik won an NSF CAREER award in 2013 for his research.
Soft Matter Physics is a relatively new but very fast growing and exciting field of Physics. It studies phenomena in complex materials with many degrees of freedom and strong interplay between enthalpy and entropy. These materials have broad applications from energy to biomedical fields. There are four major direction of research in our group:
Polymer Dynamics, Glass Transition: Molecular motion is the key to many macroscopic properties of soft materials (polymers, colloids, glass-forming and biological systems, etc.). The main goal of our studies in this direction is fundamental understanding of molecular motions and their relationship to macroscopic properties of polymers and other glass-forming materials. Among the major topics, we study the glass transition phenomenon, viscoelastic and mechanical properties, electrical conductivity, influence of chemical structure of the molecules on the dynamics and macroscopic properties of the materials.
Dynamics of Biological Macromolecules: Activity and function of biological systems are defined by their dynamics. Understanding the basic parameters that control molecular motions in biological systems, and understanding the relationship between molecular dynamics and biological functions are the main goals of our research in this direction. Among major topics, we also study role of solvents in protein dynamics, activity and stability and we are developing formulations for long-term preservation of biological molecules.
Nano-composite and Nano-structured Materials: Addition of small nano-particles to polymers can tremendously affect their properties. We study the influence of nano-fillers (carbon nano-tubes, silica and polymeric particles, graphene) on mechanical and electrical properties of polymers, their dynamics and glass transition. We also study how confinement to small volume (various nanostructures) affects mechanical properties and dynamics of the materials. We analyze various kinds of nano-structures, including polymeric and biological (e.g. viruses).
Nano-optics, Plasmonics: We are developing scanning nano-Raman spectroscopy based on the apertureless near-field optics. It employs gigantic local enhancement of electrical field of light by plasmonic (particular metallic) structures. We already achieved Raman imaging of semiconducting structures with spatial resolution ~20 nm, far beyond the diffraction limit of light. We are also developing plasmonic structures for molecular-level sensing based on surface-enhanced Raman scattering. In our studies we use neutron and light scattering techniques, dielectric and mechanical relaxation spectroscopy, and we actively collaborate with groups performing MD-simulations. Our group is a part of Soft Materials Group at ORNL.