Portrait of Cliff Brangwynne
Clifford Brangwynne, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, has been awarded a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship. Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne, who explores the interior structures of cells, has been awarded a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship.

Brangwynne, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and a significant researcher in Princeton’s groundbreaking bioengineering efforts, and Allan Sly, the Henry Burchard Fine Professor of Mathematics, are among 25 artists, scholars, scientists and activists recognized by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili, a Hodder Fellow in the Lewis Center for the Arts, also was selected as a 2018 fellow. The MacArthur Fellows Program annually awards fellowships to talented individuals for creativity, the promise of future advances based on accomplishments, and the potential for the grant to support future work. Each fellow receives $625,000 in unrestricted funding over five years.

“These 25 MacArthur Fellows are solving long-standing scientific and mathematical problems, pushing art forms into new and emerging territories, and addressing the urgent needs of under-resourced communities,” Cecilia Conrad, the program’s managing director, said in the announcement of the awards. “Their exceptional creativity inspires hope in us all.”

Brangwynne investigates the physical processes by which living cells form specialized structures known as organelles, which carry out essential functions ranging from protein synthesis and cell division to the transport of large molecules within the cell.

While many organelles are separated from their surroundings by membranes, Brangwynne’s studies have demonstrated that membraneless organelles arise from phase transitions. The partitioning of cellular material occurs through a mechanism similar to the separation of oil and water in which differences in physical properties allow liquids to coexist without mixing.

The MacArthur Foundation’s announcement cited Brangwynne for “enhancing our understanding of cellular compartmentalization and its critical role in biological development,” noting that his discoveries “have opened a host of new research avenues, as membraneless biological phase separation is being found in an ever-increasing variety of cellular settings.”

Problems with the formation and maintenance of membraneless organelles have been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. Examining phase transitions within cells, Brangwynne said, will bring new possibilities for engineering these processes to treat diseases.

“Cliff Brangwynne’s path-breaking scholarship is advancing the frontier of bioengineering,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “With its potential to transform our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, his research exemplifies how the pursuit of deep scientific understanding can help society respond to its most urgent problems.”

Brangwynne earned a B.S. in materials science and engineering, with a minor in physics, from Carnegie Mellon University; and a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University. He conducted postdoctoral research in Dresden, Germany, at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, before joining the Princeton faculty in 2011. Earlier this year he was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a top distinction in biomedical research.

“I am simply thrilled that Cliff’s breakthrough insights have been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation,” said Emily A. Carter, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “He represents the essence of what is best about Princeton Engineering: someone who seeks deep, fundamental scientific insights that change the way we understand phenomena, and then goes on to harness those insights to improve the world.

“I love the fact that Cliff brought fundamental concepts from materials science to cellular bioengineering and by so doing upended our understanding of how the interiors of cells are organized. This profound discovery is now being exploited to control cell behavior, with many practical applications to come,” she said.

Brangwynne’s work “has opened up a whole new field of research at the interface of cell biology and soft matter,” said Athanassios Panagiotopoulos, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and chair of the department. “His discovery of the importance of liquid-liquid phase separation in cells bridges the physics of materials with the biology of gene regulation. It will provide the key to understanding and manipulating a host of biological processes.”

In Brangwynne’s view, “there’s no more richly textured organization of matter in the universe” than the cells that make up our bodies. “That gets me really excited – to think about all those mysteries just waiting to be unlocked.”

This story was adapted from the Princeton University homepage story, which includes details on the other MacArthur winners associated with Princeton, Professor Allan Sly and Okwui Okpokwasili.