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Our Science at a Glance

Life is molecular recognition! The internal workings of cells are a fantastic dance, and the dancers are molecules. Sometimes the molecules hold tightly to their dance partners, sometimes they linger only briefly, and sometimes they slip past each other without a sideways glance. In the Burke Lab, we build molecules that seek out specific partners and dance with them in new and useful ways. We seek to advance basic science, to develop broadly useful technologies and to translate these results into improvements in human health.

The "RNA, Proteins and Viruses" project teaches cells to protect themselves from viruses such as HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS. We provide the cells with genes that the cells use to manufacture RNA molecules that we have engineered to "distract" certain viral proteins. This keeps those proteins from making more copies of the virus, thereby stopping the virus from spreading to more cells. On another front, this project also studies how viruses trick cells into constructing more viruses. Viruses are tiny particles, essentially a handful of viral genes wrapped up inside a bundle of specialized viral "core" proteins, sometimes also surrounded by additional layers. We are studying how the "core" proteins find and hold onto the viral genetic material while ignoring most of the cell's genetic material. The work in these project is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The "Origins" project asks what is needed to make living systems from scratch, by turning our attention to enzymes. The "dance moves" for cellular enzymes control chemical reactions and make them happen much faster or more precisely than they would otherwise. Although most enzymes are composed of proteins, we are able to engineer nucleic acid molecules such as RNA to perform some of those same chemical reactions. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) supports our efforts to understand what roles RNA enzymes may have played in getting life started on Earth, or for that matter, what role they might play in launching life on any of the thousands of planets now being discovered. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported our efforts to turn some of these RNAs into tools for regulating genes.

The "Special Delivery" project is a new direction for us. The surfaces of all cells bristle with a forest of thousands upon thousands of proteins and other molecules. Different cells have different "trees" on their surface forests that uniquely identify what types of cells they are. Knowing how to read this code would let us quickly distinguish tumor cells or virus-infected cells from their healthy neighbors, or to identify which healthy cells are preparing to mature into some other type of cell. We are building RNA molecules that can tell one cell surface "tree" from another. We believe that these RNA molecules will be able to dance with cells that we are interested in while ignoring closely-related cells, and that will be able deliver imaging agents or potential new drugs into those cells. We anticipate that this work will be funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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