Friday, July 12, 2013

SRAP Student Spotlight: Jesus and Jolie and Optogenetics

SRAPer: Jesus Yanez
Home state: Colorado
Year in school: Junior
Plans after school: attend college, undecided about what to study

 SRAPer: Jolie Nguyen
Home State: California
Year in school: Senior
Plans after school: Attend UCLA, possibly studying medicine

 Optogentics is a complicated field and one that Jesus Yanex and Jolie Nguyen knew little about when they started SRAP a month ago. Optogentics uses light and a combination of techniques from both optics and genetics to control the activity of cells in animals and, in the future, in humans. This summer, Jesus and Jolie are exploring how optogentics allows researchers to manipulate animal cells in specific organs and in real-time, and how this sort of manipulation might be helpful in treating illnesses.
“One potential application of light-activated tools would be to kill cancer cells,” explains Dr. Gomelsky, Jesus and Jolie’s head mentor. “For example, using a light, engineering cells designed to destroy certain cells could be turned on and off. Once turned on, the destroyer cell would kill the bad cells around it, causing no harmful side effects outside the lit area because, in the absence of infrared light, the destroyer cell is inactive.”
Jesus and Jolie are working with Rachel Schaefer and Jesse Hinshaw, undergraduate students in molecular biology and chemical engineering, respectively, in Dr. Mark Gomelsky’s molecular biology lab. Although they have only been working on their project for a few weeks, Jesus and Jolie have a deep understanding of their research project.
In highly technical terms, Jesus explains, “We’re trying to make an enzyme whose activity can be turned on by infrared light. We are doing it by adding a light switch, call bacteriophytochrome, to an enzymatic part. The cyclase makes a small molecule, cGMP, that activates a transcription factor that can turn on a gene of our desire. We use the LacZ enzyme as a marker because it produces blue E. coli colonies on Petri dishes, so we can monitor how well our cyclase works.”
In other words, the tool that Jesus and Jolie are working on will act as programmed antennas that can detect light and respond to it in a predicted manner. The function of the light-activated antenna is to make a small molecule that can turn genes on or off. In the future, doctors could place gene coding for these antennas into patient cells. Antennas could then be programmed to perform certain functions inside a patient’s body. Then doctors may simply shine an infrared light at the desired places in the body at the desired time to activate these antennas.“Infrared light is helpful because it penetrates deep into animal and human tissues and it does not require doing anything invasive, like cutting a person,” says Jesse. For Jolie, the most exciting part about this research is its future. “I’m really excited about the potential. I think it might actually be really good for saving lives,” she says.

SRAP is a six-week long intensive research program based at the University of Wyoming and sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR

By Robin E. Rasmussen and Kali S. McCrakin
Photos by Robin E. Rasmussen

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