September 11, 2012

The Scientist: Prof. Lucks Researches RNA To Build Biological Circuitry

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Can you think of biology as a computer? If so, how would you program it? That’s a question that Prof. Julius Lucks, chemical and bio-molecular engineering, tries to answer as he researches how to build biological circuitry.

Lucks was a chemistry major as an undergraduate, and did his graduate and postdoctoral work in physical chemistry and theoretical chemistry as it applies to biological problems. His educational pursuits led him to ask questions about how biological systems might be engineered.

Currently Lucks is studying how to create gene expression networks through RNA. His research strives to determine if one can build RNA circuits.

“Biology is a wildly complex system,” Lucks said. “Our research is to try to figure out how to distill that complexity and come up with a set of fundamental building blocks.”

He compared creating RNA circuits to building a computer.  In order to build a computer, one needs resistors transistors and capacitors, and by putting those pieces together in a certain configuration, one can make an electrical circuit that can process logic or do computations.

“We are trying to do the same for biology,” Lucks said. “You might want to design a cell that produces a chemical, but only under certain conditions. The cell needs to sense its environment, process information and enact that program.” He said that by using computer programming, his research can figure out the basic building blocks for constructing biological circuits.

Lucks is trying to use RNA to build these gene expression networks — essentially creating a computer program where the cell functions as the computer and the RNA functions as the code.

“In the past several years, our understanding of RNA has gone from it being the middle molecule — that wavy line in your Bio 101 textbooks — to it doing everything.”

His lab designs RNA molecules that control multiple genes in a cell by using proteins.  Lucks said that RNA cell circuitry may be better to use though because it is simpler —  four nucleotides as opposed to 20 amino acids — and can be converted into DNA and sequenced. Sequencing allows researchers to learn information about RNA that is difficult to obtain when using proteins. By using this diagnostic tool,  scientists can figure out if the engineered circuitry is functioning.

Lucks creates a relationship between the sequences, structures and functions of RNA for applications in biotechnology, medicine and the environment. He also said that his tools are directly applicable to biosynthetic and metabolic engineering, as well as in solving biomedical problems through RNA engineering.

As a chemical engineering professor, Lucks teaches the Junior-level course CHEME 3242, Heat and Mass Transfer, which focuses on the fundamentals of thermal energy exchange and touches on the molecular side of how chemical reactions progress and give off heat.  His course examines the designs that chemical engineers create from heat exchangers for chemical plants to the Cornell air-conditioning system.

Lucks said that although Heat and Mass Transfer is a challenging subject, his favorite part is seeing students smile after figuring out difficult problems.

“It’s nice to see the ‘aha!’ moments,” he said. “All the hard work I’ve taken to deconstruct this complexity into something digestible has paid off.”

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Original Author: Sarah Cohen