Before biologists can understand the role of specific genes, they have to be able to determine whether those genes are "on or off." Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research Fellow Mitchell Lee is looking to make take process easier.
Working with Nicholas Buchler, assistant professor of biology and physics, Lee is developing methods that will give synthetic biology researchers greater control over the expression of different genes.
His research involves creating artificial two-gene circuits that can switch on and off in E. coli, a bacteria commonly used in research. Gene circuits are clusters of genes that affect each other’s functions.
“We’re trying to develop regulatory gene sequences that will oscillate or switch in their expressions,” said Lee, a sophomore. “We’re hoping to find a gene network that we can switch on and off on command.”
Throughout the summer, Lee will learn how to use different laboratory techniques to isolate segments of the bacteria’s DNA to create the gene circuits.
Prior to conducting research this summer, he had taken molecular biology and learned how to extract and amplify DNA -- techniques he now regularly uses in the lab. He noted that although his mentor has been helpful and patient, he wishes he had learned more lab techniques before beginning his own project.
“I really like learning the theory behind the research,” he said. “I also love working with people in the lab who are so brilliant and their knowledge is so far beyond my own that it is almost incomprehensible.”
One of the graduate students Lee works with has developed a similar regulatory circuit in yeast and is trying to use the research to make chemotherapy more effective. Lee said other possible applications of his research include using the genetic devices in gene therapy or biotechnology.
The Dallas, Texas native is planning on majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and Spanish. Outside of his research, Lee is a member of the selective living group Round Table and plays racquetball.
After college, Lee said he hopes to be involved with research in some capacity, either at a university or in industry.