Biomedical Engineering Professor Nandan Nerurkar Wins NSF CAREER Award

Nerurkar will investigate mechanics behind embryonic development and their relationship to genetic defects

Mar 02 2020 | By Allison Elliott | Photo Credit: Eileen Barroso

Nandan Nerurkar, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his project, “Mechanobiology of vertebrate morphogenesis.” The five year $500,000 grant is the NSF’s most prestigious honor given to early-career faculty and will support Nerurkar’s research into the molecular biology of intestinal looping in chick embryos, a key feature in morphogenesis with implications for human health.

Across species, disruptions in this looping process—necessary for proper placement of the small intestine in the abdomen—have been tied to a range of birth defects that have become more frequent in the U.S. An integrated understanding of the mechanics and genetics behind looping could lead to better screening and treatment methods for congenital disorders. By examining the phenomena, Nerurkar hopes to uncover the developmental signals that regulate tissue formation and establish the design principles of embryonic development needed to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine capable of treating these disorders.

“From the biomedical standpoint, looping has been severely understudied,” said Nerurkar. “Establishing its biological basis is critical for future treatment of life-threatening gastrointestinal birth defects.”

Through a combination of mechanical testing, mathematical modeling, sequencing, and gene misexpression, Nerurkar seeks to identify that basis by characterizing how buckling in the small intestine is controlled by molecular cues, as well as the role mechanical feedback plays in the process, and how morphological diversity across species could potentially be explained by evolutionary genomic changes.

Longer term, Nerurkar sees unlimited potential for applying this research to the development of functional tissues. In the developing embryo, the initially straight intestinal tube undergoes a looping process under the force of mechanical buckling, which has been identified as a core mechanism behind the shaping of other organs in the body. By characterizing the mechanical basis of buckling, Nerurkar’s research will address gaps in current research, establishing links across biomechanics, genetics, cell biology, and evolution to better articulate how tissues and organs form in the embryo.  

“Ultimately, my goal is to understand the profound physical transformations that occur during embryonic development,” said Nerurkar, “wherein a seemingly disorganized ball of stem cells is progressively sculpted into a precisely patterned complex organism.”

The NSF grant will also support the educational aims of the project, including lessons for high-school students on engineering and buckling in biology, a graduate course on the biophysical mechanisms of tissue formation, as well as a summer research program for gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds in partnership with the Hypothekids Bioforce program.

Nerurkar, who joined the faculty of Columbia Engineering in 2018, leads the cross-disciplinary Morphogenesis and Developmental Biomechanics Lab. He is the fourth NSF CAREER Award winner from Columbia Engineering to be announced this year.

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Biomechanics