science The NSF 2026 Idea Machine is a competition to help set the U.S. agenda for fundamental research in science and engineering. Image: RawPixel
Home » Biomanufacturing, chemicals & materials » How can you help shape U.S. science over the next decade? Here are some big ideas.

How can you help shape U.S. science over the next decade? Here are some big ideas.

The National Science Foundation put out a call last fall for big ideas to inform its research agenda for the coming decade, and it received more than 800 submissions. Entries were judged and now 33 are in the running for the grand prize. Semifinalists will receive $1000, and as many as four will each receive $26,000 to further develop their ideas.

Check out the entrants’ video pitches and vote by leaving a comment by June 26! You can comment on the importance and potential impact of their ideas, as well as provide suggestions on how their ideas can be improved.

What are your favorite ideas? Leave your comment at the end of this post. Here are some of the most interesting ideas, in my opinion:

Living Materials

  • Can we create a world of living materials that have the characteristics of biological systems: self-replication, self-regulation, self-healing, environmental responsiveness and self-sustainability?
  • Engineered Living Materials (ELMs) are defined as engineered materials composed of living cells that form or assemble the material itself or modulate the functional performance of the material in some manner. In ELMs, the living cells can act as foundries for the production of molecular building blocks, templates for a desired material morphology, or they can maintain the material’s properties.
  • A materials technology that can harvest the self-regenerating, self-healing, self-regulating, self-sustaining and environment-responsive qualities of living organisms is poised to bring about phenomenal changes to existing technologies as well as lead to eco-friendly co-existence on this planet.
  • By integrating synthetic biology, we will not only be able to develop better materials but also incorporate intelligent machinery to sense, respond and adapt to the environment. These programmable materials will be able to self-regenerate in the presence of suitable chemical and physical cues, on demand that are beyond the scope of traditional synthetic materials.

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Bioinspired Energy Utilization

  • Can we develop energy utilization technologies that better mimic the highly efficient processes found in biological systems? This will allow more efficient use of future renewable energy resources.
  • Our current energy utilization technologies are highly inefficient. My Big Idea is to develop biomimetic and bio-inspired technologies based on advances in catalysis, electrochemistry, energetic materials, etc, with the goal of vastly increasing the efficiency of our utilization of future renewable recourses. For example, in the future we could develop nitrogen based energy carriers such that oxidation is coupled to the formation of a large scale chemical gradient that can be used to drive isothermal electricity generation.
  • Advances in this area could revolutionize our renewable energy future. One way to reduce our use of fossil fuels will be to use our renewable energy far more efficiently so that less renewable energy is needed.

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Repurposing, Recycling, Renewable Energy

  • How can we repurpose existing waste to power our society in a sustainable way? Are strategies such as pyrolysis, the treatment of plastics with high heat and low oxygen to extract short chain hydrocarbons, the most efficient we can do? How efficient can we make them? Additionally, can we utilize nature and tune biology to do similar processes under ambient conditions?
  • In the first aim, we focus on the development of new strategies to break down existing plastics and carbon-based wastes in our environment. This would come in the form of new genetically modified algae and bacteria that can harvest energy from the sun and break down plastics. Working on such biological strategies would allow us to retool these plastics to create a variety of new molecules such as biofuels, drugs, and plastics.
  • The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry reflects our desire to move towards a future under this Big Idea of Recycling, Repurposing, & Restructuring for Sustainability. It was, in part, awarded to Frances Arnold, whose research perfectly embodies the first two objectives of this Big Idea by repurposing enzymes to perform new and challenging synthetic reactions.

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Public Carbon Capture and Sequestration

  • Climate change, caused by increasing atmospheric CO2, has brought our planet to the brink of disaster. The Big Idea: develop technologies for the public to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon, leveraging the power of small change by many to create big impacts on carbon reduction.
  • Can we use chemical and biological engineering to develop routes for small scale, but widely available carbon capture and sequestration? Can these routes be readily integrated into consumer products, homes, public spaces, and commercial buildings? Can we engineer new agricultural lines and photosynthetic microorganisms for agriculture and residential or community landscaping that foster carbon capture and sequestration? Can we develop soil additives that enhance carbon sequestration?

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Global Microbiome in a Changing Planet

  • Environmental microbes play a profound role on our planet regulating climate, the location and amount of precipitation, global temperatures, the composition of our atmosphere, melting rate of glaciers, the productivity of plants in soil, patterns of global carbon and nitrogen cycling, and many other processes.
  • We are beginning to understand how microbes influence the health of planet Earth and all human beings. As we explore the impact of microbial life on our overall well-being, we can imagine a near future when diagnosis, prevention, and curing of diseases (in the broadest sense, ranging from human, animal and crop diseases, to planetary-scale ecological disruptions) occur by exploiting a combination of microbes uniquely specialized to address specific ailments. We can imagine sprinkling microbes into an aquarium to keep it healthy, and on each plant in the garden to improve flowering or fruiting. Not only can we imagine this, but commercial products exist today to enable booting up a pond or aquarium’s nitrogen cycle, and to improve plant characteristics. So we also imagine providing a coral reef with microbes that combat climate change and ocean acidification.

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Saving Coral Reef Ecosystems

  • Coral reefs are economically and biologically irreplaceable ecosystems, existentially threatened by climate change. Can science and engineering save coral reefs before the end of the century?
  • Once the science of coral reef resilience is understood, a range of engineering or ecological interventions may be conceived. Highly technical efforts might include ocean cooling or decarbonation. Such extreme bio-geo-engineering is controversial and will become more so, but it is inevitable that populations whose livelihoods are tethered to the survival of coral reef ecosystems will call for action.

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Marianna Limas

Marianna plays a critical role in displaying and communicating SynBioBeta’s message to the world. She manages SynBioBeta’s social media channels and newsletter, and works with the editorial, website, research and marketing teams.

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