Eszter Posfai Awarded Innovation Funding for Water Bear Research

Written by
Molly Sharlach, Department of Engineering, Princeton University
April 1, 2020

The water bear, a micro-sized animal that can survive environments as extreme as the vacuum of space, could help doctors store high-value cells such as embryos and stem cells at room temperature instead of deep freezing them, which would greatly lower cost and risk. Research on this possibility is one of 11 projects awarded Innovation Research Grants by the School of Engineering and Applied Science this year.

Daniel Cohen, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and molecular biology graduate student Lisset Duran Rosario recently began investigating aspects of water bears’ biology and material properties. Focusing on desiccation proteins that allow the animals to survive in a state of dried-out, suspended animation for up to 30 years, they wondered whether the desiccation proteins might be used as a protective coating to preserve cells. Working with Eszter Posfai, an assistant professor of molecular biology who specializes in stem cells and embryonic development, the researchers will first test how the water bear’s proteins function in laboratory cell lines, with plans to expand their studies to stem cells and mouse embryos.

Innovation funds “are good for interdisciplinary work across departments, to get [preliminary] data that you wouldn’t easily be able to get otherwise,” said Cohen. Posfai emphasized that it is not usually possible to obtain funding from more traditional sources for such pilot-stage projects.

Their collaboration is supported by the Helen Shipley Hunt Fund, which focuses on research aimed at improving human health. Funded by Princeton alumni, parents and other donors, this year’s Innovation Research Grants total more than $1.3 million.