By Cristina D’Imperio

Standing at sea level, the air that surrounds us pushes on our bodies at 14.7 pounds per square inch. If we venture below sea level into the ocean, the pressure increases by 14.7 pounds every 33 feet. With training, technical divers can safely dive to depths of around 330 feet. Other life forms, however, thrive in the high pressure depths of the ocean. Sperm whales, for instance, hunt giant squids at depths of 7,000 feet or more.

McGowan affiliated faculty Anna Balazs, PhD, and Lance A. Davidson, PhD, are part of an interdisciplinary team that will study the biology, chemistry, and evolution of deep-sea life in order to create materials that can withstand the powerful pressures of the ocean.

The project, “Bio-Inspired Material Architectures for Deep Sea (BIMADS),” has received a combined $7.5 million from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) through its Multidisciplinary Research Initiative (MURI), with $2 million allocated to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh.

In an interview with Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, Dr. Davidson, who is also William Kepler Whiteford Professor of bioengineering at Pitt, noted, “This [ocean] environment on our own planet is as odd to us as conditions on Mars or the moons of Saturn.”

“It tests the limits of our understanding of biology,” he continued, “and I’m excited by the opportunity to see materials that are as adaptive as biological tissues. Fifteen million years of evolutionary adaptations have allowed these organisms to colonize the deepest ocean. Can we identify and make these same adaptations to surface-dwelling organisms?”

Dr. Davidson and Dr. Balazs, the John A. Swanson Chair of Engineering and Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, are part of a team led by Georgia Tech and are joined by researchers from Providence College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Tennessee.

“This group brings together people researching biology, doing simulations, and creating materials, and working together, they are investigating how these creatures and their material properties are linked,” said Dr. Balazs. “Fish are, themselves, a material. If we can understand them—chemically, biologically, and mechanically—we can try to replicate it.”

Read the full article from the Swanson School of Engineering here.