PULLMAN, Wash. — Alexander Li, Washington State University associate professor of chemistry, has been awarded a $240,000, three-year Beckman Young Investigator award. Li is one of 20 scientists across the nation that the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation recognized in its effort to encourage research in chemistry and the life sciences, “particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials.”

Li, who came to WSU from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2000, is noted for molecular design, materials synthesis and functional nanosystems. His recent work relates to the development of bio-sensors, “molecular machines” that can detect such things as specific DNA damage, the protein markers that are indicators of early stages of cancer in biological samples, or bio-hazardous materials in the environment.

The complex macromolecular systems he has built have both a “recognition” function and a “reporting function.” After detecting their target protein by sensing a fit at their specifically constructed molecular binding sites, the miniature molecular machines report their findings by changing color by emitting photons. “For example, our sensor for DNA damage changes from red to blue if the damaged DNA is repaired. In addition, the molecular system can also be used to sense the pre-cancer marker by switching from emitting bright blue light to pink if it detects some,” said Li.

“This technology could be applied to solve a great variety of problems in health, environment and national security. An example would be detecting viruses and bacteria, such as possible biological threats, in the environment,” said Li. “On the civilian side, physicians could use it to provide rapid screening-in just minutes or hours-for analysis of particular disease biomarkers.”

“We have demonstrated that our ‘smart’ macromolecules work under laboratory controlled conditions. Our long-term objectives are to use them to probe events in vivo and to further our understanding of abnormal cell transformations underlying molecular mechanisms of disease.”

Li’s work has been supported by grants from the Department of Energy, the Kraft Nanotechnology Initiative and the Washington Technology Center. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University and holds several U.S. patents. Li has more than 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals.