WKU professor receives National Science Foundation grant

Shivendra Sahi

A Western Kentucky University biology professor has received a grant totaling nearly $500,000 from the National Science Foundation that will allow him to continue his work improving upon a safe way to synthesize valuable gold nano-particles.

Shivendra Sahi has been working to discover more efficient ways to convert toxic gold ions found in some compounds into gold nano-particles using plants as opposed to widely used harmful chemicals since 2005.

"These particles have applications in different fields," he said, adding that they can be put to use in agriculture, medicine and electronics.

"There is a need for these resources in these areas," he said.

Perhaps their most notable use is as a cancer treatment delivery system, because doctors can use them to target malignant cells.

"You can direct them," he said. "You can guide them."

The award is expected to total $497,882 and will be given out in installments until Aug. 31, 2019.

Sahi said this is the second time NSF has awarded him a grant, he said.

NSF awarded Sahi $375,413 in 2012, Anthony Garza, a program director with the foundation, said via email.

Devesh Shukla, a research associate who's been involved with the project since 2013, said the research couldn't be conducted without this sort of funding.

"It's a huge expense, a long process," he said.

Plants such as thale cress are naturally capable of absorbing compounds called gold salts and converting the hazardous gold ions they contain to nontoxic gold nano-particles, Shukla said.

The project's ultimate goal is to isolate the gene or genes that enable plants like thale cress to synthesize gold nano-particle in order to breed plants capable of more efficient synthesis, he said.

"It's a challenge," he said. "We still don't know if there's one or more genes involved."

Shukla predicted that the project would take another two years at least.

According to Sahi, widely-used chemical methods to synthesize gold nano-particles result in byproducts that are hazardous to the environment.

In an email, Garza said chemicals used to synthesize gold nano-particles include toluene, an industrial solvent, corrosive sodium borohydride and tetraoctylammonium bromide, which irritates the skin and eyes and is "thought to be toxic to aquatic life."

The idea of the research is to maximize the efficiency of safer natural processes, Sahi said.

"There is no byproduct which is harmful to the environment," he said. "Now we are trying to optimize (the process) by manipulating genes."

— Follow Daily News reporter Jackson French on Twitter @Jackson_French or visit bgdailynews.com.

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