The Zha Lab seeks to create new biohybrid materials to tackle significant problems facing human healthcare and sustainability. Inspired by naturally occurring systems and phenomena, we synthesize functional materials that incorporate both biological and non-biological components. As is the case in nature, our materials are structured across multiple length scales, and supramolecular self-assembly lies at the foundation of our work. Our research is highly interdisciplinary and incorporates molecular engineering & synthesis, nanoscale characterization, materials development, and in vitro & in vivo assays. Read more to learn about the main research project interests within the Zha Group.   

Biomimetic Antimicrobials

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing global concern. Conventional antibiotics are susceptible to bacterial resistance, as they rely on specific cellular targets which may readily undergo adaptation. In contrast, host defense peptides secreted by numerous organisms found in nature are capable of killing bacteria through targeting multiple hydrophobic and/or anionic cellular components. These peptides form amphipathic secondary structures and supramolecular assemblies to mediate their function through mechanisms less susceptible to resistance (e.g. membrane poration). By mimicking these naturally occurring host defense peptides using biohybrid systems, we seek to capture their efficacy while improving in vivo stability, specificity, versatility, and production cost. To that end, we are interested in systems capable of forming amphipathic nanostructures under aqueous conditions, such as hydrocarbon-stapled peptides, supramolecular stacks of asymmetric discotics, and even amiphiphilic janus nanoparticles.

Biohybrid Materials for Energy Storage

Hierarchically ordered nanomaterials are indispensable in the development of new sustainability technology. For example, nanowire arrays are desirable for use as electrodes in rechargeable batteries due to their high percolation, high surface area for ion incorporation, and structural stability against volume changes that occur during rapid charge/discharge. Conventional methods for manufacturing such morphologies rely on top-down methods such as photolithography. In contrast, we are interested in using self-assembly to rapidly generate nanomaterials with long-range order. Specifically, the non-covalent interaction between polymers and nanoparticles at a liquid-liquid interface can result in the formation of membranes with well-aligned nanofibers many microns thick. Through judicious choice of components or further materials processing, we seek to create such nanofibrous membranes with various mechanical and electrochemical properties for application in rechargeable battery electrodes.