Newswise — When viruses invade bacteria, bacteria may seem helpless. But many bacteria have a secret weapon. If one has encountered a virus before, it has bits of the virus’s DNA. These bits of DNA are called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats -- CRISPR for short. Bacteria use the stored DNA to recognize viruses and destroy them. It’s the bacterial version of an immune system.

Back in 2008, the idea that bacteria could “read” viral DNA and adapt accordingly was bizarre. But that bizarre process attracted the attention of Jennifer Doudna, a University of California, Berkeley researcher who also did research at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). She and Jill Banfield, another University of California, Berkeley researcher, submitted a proposal to study this mechanism to the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program at Berkeley Lab. Their resulting discovery laid the groundwork for the creation of the CRISPR-Cas9 method of gene editing. Years later, this method has revolutionized biology and medicine. In 2020, Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier jointly received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing CRISPR-Cas9.

Doudna’s research may be among the most prominent LDRD success stories, but it’s far from the only one. The LDRD program at DOE’s national laboratories has supported hundreds of projects on the cutting edge of their fields.

Funding High-Risk Innovation

Authorized by Congress in 1991 to maintain the national laboratories’ vitality, LDRD focuses on supporting high-risk and innovative projects. As in the case of CRISPR, LDRD projects often focus on research concepts that aren’t yet mature enough to propose as federal grant submissions, but have great promise.

The program provides flexibility to the labs that traditional federal funding sometimes can’t. LDRD allows them to quickly support research that addresses emerging scientific needs. It also helps the labs develop cutting-edge scientific capabilities, including scientific expertise and instrumentation. The program often serves as a proving ground for advanced research and development concepts. Through LDRD, DOE can also identify more creative approaches to fulfilling future mission needs.

This flexibility enables laboratories to attract the most innovative researchers. Scientists often pull together teams for LDRD projects from different fields that may have difficulty fitting into a traditional grant proposal. These interdisciplinary collaborations can unearth solutions that scientists with a narrower focus couldn’t. These teams may include new researchers who haven’t worked with the lab before. Once these new researchers have experience with a lab, they often continue these partnerships. LDRD can also offer opportunities to promising early-career researchers. While scientists at the start of their careers may not be experienced enough to head a full federal proposal, they can serve as primary investigators on smaller projects.

To start the process, scientists and technical staff at the national laboratories pitch projects to their leadership. Expert peer review committees and rigorous management processes at the labs evaluate and choose the projects. The laboratories themselves fund the research, using up to six percent of their annual operating and capital equipment budget. DOE headquarters approves LDRD annual plans as well as the overall proposed budget that each lab dedicates to LDRD. DOE also provides an annual report to Congress each year on LDRD. That oversight helps ensure funding is used wisely.

The Scientific Payoff: Success Stories

While CRISPR is an exceptional success story, LDRD projects have also made inroads in astrophysics, batteries, rocket design, and more.

Processing the data from next-generation astrophysics experiments requires using exascale computers that can calculate a quintillion operations per second. Crunching data and developing simulations are essential for answering questions like “What is dark matter?” To meet this need, DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory funded an LDRD project to develop Hardware/Hybrid Accelerated Cosmology Code. It was one of the first resources to manage huge astrophysics simulations on DOE’s upcoming exascale computers. Researchers can then compare these simulations to how large-scale structures have formed in the universe. Those comparisons help them understand the distribution and nature of dark matter. Scientists have run the code on DOE’s current supercomputers to create catalogs of galaxies for surveys of the universe. Its calculations also led to scientists being able to measure a certain effect more accurately in the Dark Energy Survey. Currently, scientists are adapting it to run on Aurora, which will be one of the first exascale computers.

The performance of batteries for plug-in electric vehicles and grid storage is limited by their materials. Improving batteries requires finding better materials and understanding how those materials work. But new materials often fail in ways that are different from current ones. Understanding how materials fail is essential to improving performance. DOE's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory funded an LDRD project for scientists to use the lab’s powerful X-rays to take images of electrode materials in lithium-ion batteries. As they took images during real-time operation, scientists could see structural changes that led to the batteries failing. Their work helped develop methods for understanding these materials, setting a foundation for future batteries research.

Current rocket technology is too slow to bring astronauts very far from Earth. But a new type of rocket design that results from LDRD support may change that in the future. DOE’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory funded a LDRD project to develop a rocket design that uses plasma thrusters. Plasma is a gas made up of free electrons and ions (atoms with their electrons stripped off). While some rockets already use plasma thrusters, they rely on electrical fields to control them. That limits their speed quite a bit. This new design uses magnetic reconnection, an phenomenon that occurs in the sun and astrophysical, space, and laboratory plasmas. It could be 10 times faster than current plasma thrusters. The lead researcher on this project used her knowledge of magnetic reconnection inside fusion devices to create the design.

Scientific progress happens in fits and starts, over many years. It often begins with the hint of an idea that isn’t obvious where it’s going. LDRD has helped fund many of these ideas, some of which went on to change entire fields of science. From genomics to astrophysics, LDRD has been an essential part of DOE’s scientific leadership and risk-taking innovation.


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