Dr. David Salas-de la Cruz, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University–Camden, has recently acquired a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to not only conduct research on what he and the NSF refer to as understanding the “Rule of Life,” but also support the studies of undergraduate students by involving them in research early-on. The “Rule of Life” is based on the understanding of the interaction, complexity and various levels of organization of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleotides, while trying to decipher the complete “set of rules that predict nature development and characteristics”.

Dr. Salas-de la Cruz is excited for this opportunity because it will benefit Rutgers–Camden students tremendously. With this funding from the Division of Material Research and in collaboration with Professor Xiao Hu at Rowan University, who also received a NSF collaborative grant for this joint research, their students will take part in research activities at each campus. This academic year Dr. Salas-de la Cruz received $66,880 of a three-year NSF-Collaborative grant totaling $211,851. His grant also includes an additional $132,758 that is awarded to Rowan University as part of this collaborative effort.

“That means for the next three years I will be funding undergraduate students to do research investigations, perform presentations and write scientific papers,” Dr. Salas said excitedly.  He explained his research concentrates on “understanding the molecular interactions and morphological changes of natural biomacromolecules,” but specifically focuses on two from this group of biomacromolecules.

“One is a polysaccharide, in this case cellulose or anything that is a glucose-based system, such as chitin and chitosan. And the protein we are looking at is silk, which comes from the mori [silk] worm.” He chose this particular type of silk because it is “easier to find,” which makes it more accessible for his research. Dr. Salas-de la Cruz then looks at structural, morphological and physicochemical properties when both, the protein and the polysaccharides, are blended together. He also looks at the molecular interaction of other proteins, such as collagen or keratin.

“It is important to understand how a polysaccharide interacts with the protein. Viewed from the morphological, chemical and material science perspective, the main question is: how does the structural composition of the material affect morphology, which then dictates its physical and chemical properties?”

The reason he is extremely interested in answering this question and studying the relationship between composition’s effects on morphology is because he wants to use these developed fabrication methods and biomaterials on three specific projects he is passionate about. These include cell regeneration, access to healthy drinking water, and plant-made batteries. He also feels the study of morphology is an area that “is not a well-represented field.”

In an effort to better understand muscle regeneration, the first of the three important projects he is interested in, he is using his biomacromolecules to fabricate scaffolds for growing muscle tissue in a lab. “I want to understand how the cell/scaffold molecular interaction affect cell proliferation and differentiation,” Dr. Salas-de la Cruz stated.  One of his goals is to use this knowledge to grow “meat” in the lab.

“Instead of growing the meat by using animal resources and slaughtering cows, I am going to extract a cell from the animal. This way, I can grow the muscles of the “meat” in the lab,” explained the professor. “I noticed this past year when we were using these materials in teleost [fish] studies that we had completely healed the tissues of their systems.”

The second project he’s applying his methods toward is removing lead from drinking water.

“With the Flint crisis and the issues with Puerto Rico and water quality in my head, I started thinking more about how to apply this problem to the environment.” He plans to tackle the water quality problem by studying the application of a polysaccharide/protein blend to water containing lead to see if the proteins would “lock into one another” in order to cleanse the water of the contaminant.

His third ongoing project is about creating batteries. Focusing on a membrane that is filled with electrolytes, Dr. Salas-de la Cruz will alter the morphological properties of these electrolytes to be able to add more electrons, which will create a larger charge. “Now, the battery itself is made from natural materials that came from plants and animals.”

In light of this large financial acquisition that Dr. Salas-de la Cruz has made for Rutgers–Camden, he cannot help but feel content with how his career has progressed so far. “I have had the privilege to see over 500 students in the last five years I have been here and have had good mentors that have positively guided me and I love it,” remarked the chemistry professor proudly. “Right now, I am doing what I want to do. I have seen some students go through the whole process — starting with college, progressing to get jobs, and going to medical and graduate schools. It is amazing to see how much impact someone can have.”

Written by Asia Kittles