The long-term goals of our research are to investigate the molecular basis of function for natural regulatory RNAs and to learn how to adapt these RNAs for new applications inside cells, including molecular sensing and gene control. We employ organic synthesis, biochemistry, genetics, and bioinformatics to study small molecule-RNA and protein-RNA interactions that are involved in gene regulation in bacteria and plants. Our research aims to provide new insights into the regulation of gene expression in these organisms, and furthermore has applications toward engineering bacteria and plants for biofuel production and other biotechnology projects.
Beyond the messenger: Riboswitches are RNA structures found primarily within the untranslated region of mRNAs in bacteria that form precise receptors for small molecules and regulate gene expression in response to ligand binding. Each riboswitch is naturally evolved to function robustly inside cells. To do so, it must fold properly, bind its ligand specifically in the presence of other metabolites, and affect gene expression. Recent studies have hinted at the potential of riboswitches as robust platforms upon which to evolve new in vivo functions, but this approach remains under-developed. We use chemical biology approaches to study and manipulate riboswitches in projects that relate to molecular sensing inside cells and other cellular applications.
Plant biotechnology: Most genetic engineering efforts to improve plant characteristics involve constant expression of gene or knock-out of genes. However, these strategies may lead to detrimental effects on plant growth and development in addition to the desired beneficial effect. We seek to develop an RNA-based technology to control the expression of introduced genes that can be used in a variety of biofuel crops and can be readily combined with other regulatory mechanisms that function at the DNA level.