Three EEB professors and their colleagues were selected for the first round of MCubed, a first-of-its-kind, real-time research funding initiative at U-M that puts $15 million into the hands of professors to jump start new projects they believe in.

Two projects involving EEB faculty have been funded as one of 50 pilots, one on algal fuel and biodiversity and the other on optimizing resource allocation across multiple interventions for cost-effective malaria prevention and control.

Partners for the algal fuel project are Professors Vincent Denef, Brad Cardinale (EEB/School of Natural Resources and Environment) and Nina Lin (Chemical Engineering).

“We propose to examine mixed algae cultures for biofuel production, by integrating methods and tools spanning from engineering to ecology and genomics,” states the project summary.

“Developing renewable energy resources is a national priority and algae represents one of the most promising feedstocks for sustainable production of transportation fuels. To date, most research on algal biofuel has focused on identifying, creating, and utilizing a ‘super-species’ for maximum production of lipids. This monoculture oriented approach has delivered very limited success due to challenges associated with scaling-up economics. In this project, we hypothesize, based on the ecological theory of 'transgressive overyielding', that certain naturally diverse groups of green algae have evolved to express complementary genes, metabolic pathways, and biological traits that enhance the efficiency and stability of algal biofuel yield beyond what any monoculture can accomplish alone. At the initial stage, we will focus on identifying promising algae mixed cultures using high-throughput microfluidic co-cultivation and screening. Our research in this new area will make use of an existing extensive algae collection and a recently developed droplet co-cultivation technology. In addition to examining algae species combinations, we will also study bacterial communities which interact with algae and might play an important role in determining properties of the mixed culture.”

Partners for the malaria prevention and control project are Professors Mark Wilson (School of Public Health/EEB), Ravi Anupindi (Ross School of Business), and David Hutton (School of Public Health).

The project summary states, “Prevention and treatment of malaria in underdeveloped countries is being pursued through multiple actions that include insecticide-treated nets, indoor residual spraying, environmental modification, anti-malarial drugs, and other interventions. These efforts, usually undertaken in contexts where product availability and cost are uncertain, are often subsidized by high income countries or philanthropic organizations that are increasingly interested in more efficient allocation of multiple interventions. Such optimal strategies, however, are complicated by the complex, even counter-intuitive interactions among different types of simultaneously implemented anti-malaria interventions. This project will develop data-driven, simulation and analytical/mathematical models to analyze the system dynamics of multiple interventions, evaluate the cost effectiveness of alternative treatment and prevention strategies, and evaluate supply chain uncertainties that hamper the effectiveness and efficiency of interventions. Analyses should help to optimize decisions concerning the types and amounts of anti-malaria interventions that will have the greatest impact on people's health.”

According to an article in the University Record, to qualify, three researchers from different disciplines just need to come up with an idea and agree to work together. A modern alternative to the traditional yearlong government grant review process, the new MCubed program puts university professors in charge of divvying research dollars in a pure form of peer review.

MCubed is designed to encourage bold research at the interfaces of academic fields, where big breakthroughs tend to happen, according to the designers of the grassroots program.

Beginning in fall 2012, departments, schools and colleges will allot a $20,000 token to each participating faculty member. Once three researchers decide to “cube,” they register the project online on a first-come, first served basis. They immediately receive $60,000 to hire one graduate student, undergraduate student, or postdoctoral researcher, and work can begin.

MCubed, a two-year pilot itself, aims to fund pilot studies that could eventually lead to larger traditional grants. It will give researchers new opportunities to follow their instincts, program designers say. A total of 250 projects will be funded in this pilot phase. Funded projects will present findings next year at an innovations showcase symposium.

MCubed is the first program of U-M’s Third Century Initiative, a $50 million, five-year plan to develop innovative, multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship.

Watch a MCube video and read more in the University Record

Captions from top: Vincent Denef, Brad Cardinale, Mark Wilson.